Reading Cat Valente is an experience not like any other. I've not read so many authors who take me out of my world--and into an unmistakably otherworldly-world--as Cat Valente can. In "Deathless", Valente transported me into the worlds of fairy tale; of early twentieth century Russia; or marriage and war--all equally dazzling and absorbing and terrible and horrifying (yes, horrifying), that reading through the book quite distracted me from the day job and the day to day concerns. It is not an easy novel to read. Though one can traipse through its many worlds to escape from everyday life, it is not a novel for escapists--tackling, as it does, the most horrifying aspects of daily life, the ones we don't want to think or talk about. It is far from being one's holiday reading.
"Deathless" was a beautiful read, but also stressful (as marriage and war and hunger and poverty and death, all significant in this novel, are, in real life--and how fairy tales ought to be read). Halfway through, I put it down, and then picked it up only yesterday evening (a weekend). And then I couldn't stop reading until I got to the very end.
What I most appreciate is that the novel retells the tale with Marya Morevna as the protagonist, bringing doom upon herself and everyone else. The parts that I loved reading most are those that hew closely to the fairy tale structure: The repetition of the three birds falling from a tree; the finding of the three sisters as Marya Morevna made her way home.
It did not move me quite as much as Valente's short stories do--perhaps because the richness of each of its many worlds pulled my attention to the point of distraction--but I felt that at the heart of the story was a powerful question regarding war, and the true nature of marriage; the question of what it meant to love someone (versus possessing them); and a meditation on communism (and death).
All these concerns seemed to compete for attention in the novel, instead of supporting the whole (in my opinion, at least)--so that, just at that point when one comes to what seems like an epiphany about the nature of life, death, marriage, or communism, one would be led toward another path. In parts, I caught myself asking, "Now why on earth would Marya Morevna (or Koscheii) act that way?" It seemed as though the point was that every character is by nature cruel and selfish--not the easiest thing to write, or make one's reader understand, if not accept.
Nevertheless, it is a powerful and brave work, which I am planning to re-read. I am quite sure I've missed on quite a lot, and I can't wait for my understanding to blossom (like flowers, like blood blooming on a bandage over a fresh wound) on the subsequent trip.