Catherynne M. Valente, Yume No Hon:
The Book of Dreams
(Prime Books, 2005)

The prose of Catherynne M. Valente is not for the weak-minded, nor for the faint of heart. It takes courage to sustain so extended a visit into realms of such richness and depth -- wholly surreal, yet speaking to the reality of interior truths.

Unlike The Labyrinth, the heroine of Valente's Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams has a name: "Ayako of One-Name-Only, who each night brews a sour tea of dandelion roots and watches the stars slide out of the sky like bean-shoots." This, Valente's second novel, takes place in the fertile and meandering stream of consciousness of an old hermit woman who lives -- among other, richer, interior places of dream and imagination -- on a mountain in medieval Japan. Her dream-shapes and dream-selves weave in and out of her exiled existence, threading her humble/humbling reality with the omniscience of legend, myth, philosophy, and personal quest.

The book itself is a delight to hold. It's the perfect shape and thickness, its cover art serene, pleasing to look at. Even without the dustjacket the book is lovely: rich midnight-black linen with golden stamping. I've mentioned before my weakness for a beautiful binding. If you have the same . . . oh, let's not call it a fetish, but rather a fondness for beautiful bindings, this will not disappoint. And the interior artwork is charming! I'm tough to please in this category, but artist A. R. Menne's grayscale renderings absolutely capture the ethereal nature of the various mythological/fantastical manifestations of Ayoko's multiple phases of self. Illustrations in textual works (as opposed to graphic novels) are always in danger of competing with, even distracting from, the story and language of a novel. A. R. Menne's pieces are accompanied by such captions (quoted from the text) as: "It is possible that I only dream of her, her rags and thin hands, her snow-cold calves and breathing eyes. It is possible I have never been anything but her." And: "It is all the same to me whether her hair is the color of a burned oak or of the fire that burned it. But like all my postulants, she is beautiful. She smells of alfalfa and licorice." And: "I crouch in the silt-ridden delta until I have sunk to my knees, grub his filthy bones and chunks of flesh from the earth, to pile them together in a grotesque cairn." What a trick to have done such prose justice!

Valente's Yume No Hon sustains its lushness throughout. The characters are more readily understandable than those of The Labyrinth, its storyline more linear. It is in many ways more easily accessible than her debut novel, and even more beautiful for that greater accessibility.

Listen to an excerpt of Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams here.

[Camille Alexa]