Monday, 1 December 2014

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

"That is the purpose of stories, that no matter where we walk in the world, we walk twice." 
 - Catherynne Valente

There are very few authors who inspire me to note quotes while I'm reading. Catherynne Valente is one of them. And this is the one that made me stop, write it down, then continue, because it speaks so strongly to my experience as a reader, and to how my life has been formed and enriched by books. 

In this case, I can't say that I will ever walk into the world and run into people without heads, whose faces are on their bellies. Or those with huge jaws. Or huge ears that wrap around small butterfly-like bodies. Or gryphons. And where everything, once planted, grows into a tree. People become trees. Trees bear odd fruits. However, if I ever encounter these things, I will now be walking there twice.

I have always enjoyed the way Valente plays with ways of telling stories, and that's here as well. While it took me a while to figure out the purpose, as the stories started to mesh, it made the trip we'd taken to get there very powerful, and filled me with a keen sense of dread for the other book in this set. 

This book is a riff on the medieval legends of Prester John, the purported monk-king of a kingdom in the East populated by strange races and the Fountain of Youth. A delegation of monks to the East stumble into a strange land hundreds of years after Prester John, and find a book-tree from which one plucks three books that all, in their way, concern Prester John and his kingdom. But the books start to rot as soon as they're picked, and so it's a race against time for the monk to transcribe them each, taking an hour at a time on each one, desperate to stop. It gives the author the chance to use interesting ellipses in the middle of stories. 

Prester John himself came in search of St. Thomas, the Doubting Thomas of legend, who turns up in a way I would not dare to spoil, so delightful is it. Of the three books, one is by Prester John concerning his arrival in the country on a sea of sands, and his adventures there, and his struggles to turn a land of oddities into Christians, and the lengths to which he would rather do that than change his own fundamental view of the world.

The second book is written by the woman who will become his wife, who is herself a blemmyae, one of those with no heads, a mouth in her navel, and eyes where her nipples would be. This could only work in a warm climate. It is through her that we learn how a kingdom of strange immortal people deals with immortality without going stagnant. We get a sense of the system Prester John will change, while the monks read in the wreckage of it. 

The third book predates the system that Prester John changes, and concerns one of the beings with huge ears, who, instead of listening this time, is enlisted by the Queen to tell her children stories in hopes of making them better people. This one tells us how the system came to be. 

And by the end, they all weave together, even as the bookfruits rot, the stories join, and the world we are learning about similarly starts to spoil, and we know why, and what, but not exactly how. That must be the companion book.

I long ago crossed the threshold where I would read anything Catherynne Valente writes. Some enchant me forever. Some are merely just very, very good. This one is hovering between the two. We'll see in a few months how it has stayed with me. She takes such interesting looks at stories, legends, myths, and folklore and weaves them into fantasies that are unlike anything else out there. Her prose is beautiful, and there are few authors about whom you can say that these days. So much is fine, but more serviceable that pleasurable for its own sake.


  1. If you liked the fantastic angle on Prester John, you should try Baudolino, by Umberto Eco. The title character goes in search of the kingdom of Prester John in the east, and the result is an intriguing mixture of magical realism and medieval philosophy.

    1. I will have to try it! Thanks for the recommendation!