Saturday, April 16, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John, Volume One by Catherynne M. Valente
ISBN: 978-1-59780-199-7


This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries.  But what if it were all true?  What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?

Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit.  These strange books chronicle the history of the kingdom of Prester John, and Hiob becomes obsessed with the tales they tell.  The Habitation of the Blessed recounts the fragmented narratives found within these living volumes, revealing the life of a priest named John, and his rise to power in this country of impossible richness.  John’s tale weaves together with the confessions of his wife Hagia, a blemmye – a headless creature who carried her face on her chest – as well as the tender, jeweled nursery stories of Imtithal, nanny to the royal family.


My Thoughts:

I am perpetually behind the times.  I wanted to read this novel when it was first released some months ago, but due to the vagaries of life, I could not.  Then I tried to read it in January and realized that my brain wasn’t up to it (we’ll get back to this in a moment) and I set it aside after twenty pages.  Now, I finally had some spare brain-power and what I want to be reading is Valente’s new novel Deathless (because I am fickle and am always chasing after the next amazing book, regardless of the many that await my attention on my to-be-read pile already – there are worse addictions to have).

One of the things I love about Valente’s writing is that it’s challenging.  You can’t, or well, I can’t read her stuff with half my brain turned off.  I have to pay attention to the way she manipulates language, and to the way she weaves a story from all these different strands.  I am always amazed at her skill.  And the descriptions!  The beautifully expressed ideas!  For instance, when she has one of the lions (yes, there are sentient, speaking lions) talk about love in an inversion of a passage from the Bible (something in Psalms I think) is absolutely mind blowing, or it was to me.  It's so eloquent and profound.  My book is littered with little pink page markers for sections I need to copy down into my quote book.  I’ll end up sharing one here, because I cannot resist, because these words should be shared, tasted, and savoured.  Okay, I’ll cut back on the florid prose.  I am not a novelist, I am a reviewer.

While I’m in love with Valente’s prose and I enjoyed this re-imagining of the Prester John story (which I know nothing about, being that I'm a Romanticist rather than a Medievalist), it did take me a while to connect with the story.  The setting and the characters in John’s kingdom are so strange that it was difficult for me to settle into the narrative.  In a way, it’s another sign of skill – as you follow Hiob through the books about John’s arrival in this Otherworld, both of them are disoriented, confused, filled with disbelief and my reaction mirrored theirs in a lot of ways.  But I got used to it all after a while – rather than feeling outside the story because the only “human” in sight was the prejudicial John, I slowly began to associate with Hagia, with Hajji, with all the other fantastical characters.  Ultimately, while they might look different they all came to be people – with complex emotions, motivations and hopes.  Daunting, I know, but you'll ease into it.  Still, at the beginning, I was truly alienated and some might find this to be disconcerting enough to stop reading.  I am not so faint of heart.

One of my favourite parts of this book (I can’t tell you all of my favourite parts, because I would have to write a lengthy treatise on the subject) was the conflict between Hiob and John’s Christian world view, the different creation myths and creatures they encounter in their travels, and the need they both feel to somehow fit the sights of this Otherland into their small rubric.  There are allusions to and inversions of Biblical passages, there is a retelling of the story of Christ by Thomas Judas, and the depth and breadth of myth-building I've come to expect from Valente's work is in full effect throughout.  She makes you re-think the way you interpret the world, whether you subscribe to religion or not.  Since the stories are read through Hiob's transcription of three books he has been allowed to take from a tree whose fruits are books, the world is seen through his eyes, meaning that we see everything through his own prejudices.  The same is true of John's book.  Confronting these limited points of view and their inherent prejudices is what rattled my cage a little, made me feel uncomfortable, because I did not want to be part of their shortsightedness, their closed-mindedness.  That type of reaction breeds awareness and that’s a powerful thing to find in any novel.

I feel as though I haven’t given you much substance in this review, that all I’ve done is gush disorganized first impressions at you.  I have a multitude of ideas about the events portrayed, but then I would be dissecting little details, going into minutiae the way that my English degree has taught me to do, and this blog is not the space for that.  No, the discussion of such details is best done over a cup of tea in a cozy room with good friends.  So – if my rambling has in any way raised your interest, go read this book and then we can talk about it.  I’ve got plenty of tea; perhaps you can bring some cookies.

Addendum:  A short quote, to whet your appetite, my dears.

“I reminded myself: when a book lies unopened it might contain anything in the world, anything imaginable.  It therefore, in that pregnant moment before opening, contains everything.  Every possibility, both perfect and putrid.” Pg. 27, The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente

Postscript:  If you're interested I've also written reviews of Palimpsest and In the Night Garden.

Postscript the 2nd:  Since it's Poetry Month, I will share a link to a poem Valente recently published.  It's about Persephone and the first part of a multi-part piece.  Part one is to be found here, at Goblin Fruit.

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