The first thing that strikes you about Palimpsest is the gorgeous prose. Every sentence is crafted with the utmost care, resulting in a novel that almost reads like poetry. It simply begs to be read out loud. I’ve read many books that attempt this kind of lush prose, but Palimpsest is one of the most successful and most beautiful.
Palimpsest is a sexually transmitted city. People who have been there have a small tattoo — a piece of the city’s map — somewhere on their body. Sleep with them, and you are transported there. When you wake up, back in the real world, you will find a small tattoo of another part of Palimpsest on your body — and you will want to go back.
The story follows four people who are all newcomers to Palimpsest — a young Japanese woman, a beekeeper, a locksmith, a bookbinder. They all have lost something in the real world and are naturally drawn to Palimpsest. As the story progresses, more and more details about their lives, and about the strange city of Palimpsest, are revealed. While the novel, at first, seems like four more or less independent stories told in alternating chapters, slowly but surely a plot develops that connects everything and leads to a beautiful, bittersweet conclusion.
An interesting aspect of the novel is its strained eroticism. After the initial “connections” that introduce the four protagonists to Palimpsest, they find themselves wanting to return, which can only be done by sleeping with another “infected” person. The resulting scenes are almost uncomfortable to read — while they’re at times fairly explicit, the sex is mainly a mode of transportation, something you have to get through.
Palimpsest is a novel to read slowly and savor, because it’ll just be over all too soon. I found myself rereading entire chapters after turning the last page. I would recommend this without hesitation to fans of China Mieville, but also to anyone else who appreciates a slow-moving, lyrical, and entirely unique story. Absolutely gorgeous.
Here you can read the short story “Palimpsest” that “started it all”.