Saturday, March 10, 2018

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (2011)

I’ve read Deathless twice, and each time has been a rich literary feast.  Valente is a superb at her craft; paragraphs are like fine dining here, with each word carefully chosen and mixed and baked and prepared, then all placed before you.  This time I paid close attention to names: like magic, names and words have meaning here.  “Marya Morevna”, for example, is a fairy tale character from Russian folklore; “Marya” of course is a derivative of the name “Mary” which, among other things, means “from the sea” (Marya is originally from St. Petersburg, the fantastic port city of Russia) and “bitter” and “rebellion” - all of which describe the main character.  Valente has been thoughtful like that throughout - although I did need to google quite a few things as I went along.

When trying to explain what this book is about, I’m always saying “It’s the Russian Revolution told through the point of view of Russian folktale characters like Baba Yaga.”  It’s indeed that, but even more so, it’s the story of Russia.  I read that the three bird suitors at the beginning describe types of revolutionaries and also classes.  There is, of course, the archetypical Russian village Yaichka.  And then there is this line:

“ I think maybe Russia had two husbands, too, and one was rich and one was poor, one old and one young, and the poor husband shot the rich husband in the chest, and all his daughters, too. He was braver than I am.”

I liked this puzzle aspect of Deathless, and its literary lyrical quality, and how each reading was something slightly different.  And how not everything was instantly knowable or made sense; this book has to be savored, and some of the tastes are completely unfamiliar and unknowable.

Marya’s sisters are the same names as that of the daughters of the last Tsars.  I think I missed that the first time.
Deathless (Leningrad Diptych, #1)Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read Deathless twice; each time I’ve come away from Valente’s literary Russian feast totally sated from its richness, its baroque lusciousness. Deathless is a retelling of a beloved Russian folktale (it’s in Andrew Laing’s Red Fairy Book); it’s also a retelling of the Russian Revolution as it happened to all of these Russian fairy tale characters (and so much better than Animal Farm); it’s also an Alice in Wonderland history of Russia in the early 20th century. I love the lyrical literary writing; I love the puzzle the book is. Like magic, names have deeper meanings - Valente chooses everything with care (Google translate was helpful here; a smattering of Russian history may be helpful too). Not everything works - but Valente’s fine writing skill and craftsmanship makes even the occasional bit of plot clunkiness a joy to read.

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