The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John, Volume One
by Catherynne M. Valente
I’m a sucker for good opening lines, and this book starts with a great one: “I am a very bad historian. But I am a very good miserable old man.” This novel presents a complex series of storylines that interweave in unexpected ways.
First, in 1699, Brother Hiob has been sent from Europe to find the tomb of Prester John, king of a utopian kingdom out beyond India. Eventually a local shows Hiob a tree that grows books like fruit. He is allowed to pluck three from its branches. The remaining three storylines come from these three books.
One book is the autobiography of Prester John, who is revealed to be a Nestorian heretic exiled from Constantinople in the 1100’s. He crosses a sea of boulders and shipwrecks in a strange land where cranes and pygmies go to war over who is allowed to have children that year. Apparently no one dies in this world; any buried object grows a tree that bears fruit of… the buried object. If your husband dies, bury him, and in a few years you can see your husband again as hanging fruit in your back yard. Things get stranger from there as John searches for the tomb of Thomas the Apostle.
Another book is the autobiography of John’s eventual wife, born of a race that appears human, but has no head and carries its face on its chest. We meet her on her first trip to the fountain of eternal life. I have to applaud Valente here for creating a fountain that goes a different direction from any other imagining I’ve heard of such a place.
A royal nanny writes the third book, who served to raise the three children of the queen who founded the nation John discovers in the first book. She tells them stories about the origin of this strange land, as well as their place in it.
Valente shows an amazing sweep of imagination. The reader doesn’t have the chance to get bored as a new discovery seems to leap from every page. The characters live and breathe; some of them reside in this land of wonders, while others are new to it. The prose fairly sings. In the first chapters, I thought the novel would turn into a modern, more poetic Gulliver. Nope! This is fantasy at its finest.
Except… except for the heresy.
I’m not sure if Valente expects the reader to have a thorough knowledge of ancient Christian heresies, expects them to look up the heresies if they don’t know them, or simply threw them in for color, but I found myself challenged to dredge up memories of my old church history classes. Nestorius? What was he about, again?
As brother Hiob reads his fruit-books, he responds to the Nestorian heresy in a fairly predictable fashion. But as the tale continues, we are introduced to deeper and more subtle twists on the Word of God. At one point, the book presents a rather poetic parody: “There are three things that will beggar the heart and make it crawl – faith, hope, and love – and the cruelest of these is love.” Another character says, “I think you would find it remarkably freeing to leave religion aside. When you believe no one thing, everything can be true.”
All these are very present in our current culture. However, there was something new, and though it is terrible theology, it does make for a fascinating story. Major, major spoilers for the novel, so if you have any intention of reading it, please do not continue. Thomas the Apostle plays a fairly major role in the book. And eventually, we find out something that reveals the level of Valente’s imagination: Thomas Dydimus, Thomas the Twin, was… Jesus’ twin.
And suddenly a whole new world of story possibilities explodes. As I said, it makes for terrible theology and does not fit anything that the Bible says – and yet, it suddenly turns the Easter story into something a little different.
I’m not sure if I recommend this book. As I said, the story is gripping, the characters fascinating, the prose magical. The false theology, though sometimes blatant, is often very subtle and could mislead. I guess I would label: read with caution. I’m debating picking up volume two, simply because I want to keep exploring this wonderland that Valente has introduced. We shall see.
We shall see.