by Catherynne M . Valente
Though there are several important excerpts at the beginning of the book, I decided to use the opening line from the first chunk of narrative: “I am a very bad historian. But I am a very good miserable old man.”
I’ve been a fan of Valente’s short fiction for a year or two now, and loved The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. And actually, I was searching the library catalog to see if they had Deathless listed at all, because Russian fairytales are love, when I saw this one.
One of Valente’s trademarks is her lush prose, and this book was no exception. At the same time, though I was constantly caught by the images, the repetition, and the glorious flow of words, I didn’t feel as if the style had take over the substance. This is a fascinating story of what-if: what if Prester John were real? what if a group of monks set off to find him in his deathless land?
I’ve admitted many times in the past to having problems with multiple character narrations. However neat they sound in theory, I’ve often found that they slow down the pace of the book excruciatingly, and that the characters are usually not sufficiently differentiated. This book suffers from neither of those problems. The story clips right along, possibly a result of its excerpting* structure, and the different voices who make up the body of the text are all fantastically different.
Though I’m both an Orthodox and an orthodox Christian, the theology of the book didn’t bother me. I never felt as though its suggestions were made to be titillating or shocking. In a way it’s hard for me to define, I felt as if it was both sincere and respectful. This might be different for others, and I admittedly will swallow all sorts of things as long as they’re well written. Also, I think Valente has a better grasp of Nestorianism than most people who attempt to write about it.
Hiob might be my favorite narrator, but I enjoyed them all, even John.
I’m about to go all English-majory for a moment, so please excuse me in advance. But one of the things I loved about this book was that whatever cohesive narrative you create from it is a creation. Because all of the narrations are first-person and therefore inherent personal and unreliable, they are none of them true, and yet together they create a sort of truth. Perhaps it’s the post-modernist in me, but I love this.
* Awkward, but sounded so much better than excerptatory, which is probably more correct and terrible English.