I know you come to a book review site to find books that can help you escape from the world, but unfortunately I am that guy, the one who brings you screaming back to reality. I am talking, of course, about climate fiction, and boy was this book a treat. I’ve only read one other book by Cathrynne Valente (Radiance) and it holds an incredibly special place in my heart. So to finally come back to her writing feels like a warm embrace. The Past is Red, by Cathrynne Valente, is an earnest and eccentric story that explores a terrifying future while delivering an impassioned plea to reconnect with the world.
The Past is Red follows Tetley Abednego, the most beloved girl in Garbagetown. Technically, the book is two short stories that detail Tetley’s life, before and after the event that would define her forever. Tetley lives in a future where the world has been entirely flooded, not a spot of dry land in sight. Only a few floating communities exist, and Tetley makes her home on the floating trash patch of Garbagetown. She seems to be the only one who understands that Garbagetown is a beautiful wonderland willing to provide for the people who live on it. But when a hope from the past, promising a return to the future, shows up in one of the ports, Tetley becomes conflicted. Is there really still hope for the residents of Garbagetown, and where exactly does it lie?
I adored this story. There is a lot to love about The Past is Red, but it would not shine as brightly if Tetley was not as charming and engaging as she is. She is a force of nature, bringing a wonderful mix of cynicism and compassionate sincerity to every interaction. She is willing to bear the weight of the world, whether she carries it like Atlas upon her shoulders or endures it through a series of fist shaped blows. She is angry and frustrated, but Valente takes great care to make the reader angry with Tetley, instead of as an object of her scorn. She makes you love her home and want to explore Garbagetown’s many facets along with her and learn the many intricacies of life. At first, Tetley feels absurdly sympathetic due to her antagonistic relationship with her fellow Garbagetowners. However, Valente straddles the line of absurdity, giving Tetley an almost endless reserve of tenacity and resilience, bridging the gap to empathy with Tetley. Valente has this special talent to breathe magic and beauty into things that seem contradictory, making her writing pop in a sea of sameness.
Garbagetown is a pure delight, feeling both depressing yet entirely magical with a vague halo of hope. Valente manages not only to make the floating trash patch feel like a future home, but one that is suited to the needs of those who live on it. It has sections of specific types of garbage, showing off different ways people have adapted to living within their means in comedic but austere ways. There is Candle Hole, a section entirely of candle wax, where if someone wants to burn your house down, they have to hold a torch to it for hours. Electric City boasts the only working motors and lights and Pill Hill is just endless piles of unlabeled drugs that people take russian roulette style to drown their worries. Valente sets the mood with each new section, while also fully realizing her themes of reduced consumption and managed use through Tetley’s travels through the land. It feels like an apocalyptic candyland theme park complete with discarded wrappers as tumbleweeds.
If Garbagetown and the Tetley are stars of the show, Valente’s writing is the supporting cast, crew, writers, and production team. It’s full of vitality, snark, and truths laid bare. The story is told non-linearly, never really giving you an idea of where you are in Tetley’s life. It’s confusing at first, but patience reveals how cleverly Valente weaves it into the nature and themes of the story. And if you’re not one for swearing, you’ll have a hard time getting through this book as ‘fuckwit’ litters every page. It’s full of purpose and vitriol, eventually becoming a staple word, but one that doesn’t lose meaning with extended use. Instead, it gains deeper context and transforms itself into something all encompassing. It’s so useful and powerful, it’s ingrained in my own head for Valente’s intended purpose, to describe us. It’s amazing how delicately Valente handles the subject matter, pointing it directly at us while holding out a hand asking the reader to join her.
Valente’s writing is both brash and whimsical, providing levity and urgency to her themes. While a lot of the book can feel like a comedic screed against the indulgences of today, it’s written with a sincerity that provides a way to label the problems of today, arming the reader to fight those problems. It isn’t necessarily a collection of how to solve those problems in a physical way, so much as provide an outlook that would provide the mental soil to cultivate such solutions. The Past is Red is exactly what I was looking for in climate fiction and Valente perfectly captures my feelings while providing an avenue for them to run.
Rating: The Past is Red 9.0/10