Book Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

The Past is Red – Catherynne M. Valente (Tordotcom, 2021)

I received an Uncorrected Proof of this book which will be on sale July 2021. All opinions are my own.

Tetley Abednego lives in Garbagetown and she thinks it’s the most beautiful place in the world. Dry land is a myth and the world as Tetley knows it exists on a mass of garbage, floating in the midst of the ocean, the remnants of humanity living off the trash of the Earth’s former inhabitants. The book is divided into two parts, called “The Future is Blue” and “The Past is Red”, each part set about ten years apart while also providing some background information of Tetley’s childhood.

The book is short and quick to read and it’s quite amazing what Valente achieves in terms of world building in so few pages. Without ever using words like climate or pollution, we easily understand that this is a possibility of our own future, a world where climate change has caused the waters to rise and turned land into nothing more than a dream. Yes, it’s a bit reminiscent of Waterworld but in a way that reminded me of how awesome that movie seemed when I saw it at the age of ten, not how cheesy it seemed when I re-watched it as an adult. The layout of Garbagetown and the great floating patch of garbage that humanity exists on is just slightly over the top, giving the story a whimsical and creepy, fairy tale aspect. At the same time, in a time when things like the Great Garbage Patch already exist, Garbagetown doesn’t sound too crazy.

The plot such as it exists is a little thin but enough for the page count here. Tetley is a straightforward character, telling us clearly about herself and her world so that it never felt like she was withholding or creating a false tension. I wanted to delve deeper into her story and her setting and would gladly read a much longer novel about all of this.

The Past is Red is the first book I’ve read by Valente and previously I was only aware of her as the author of a series of middle-grade novels. My nephews says their great. But I feel compelled to make it clear that this is not a book appropriate for children. The content is definitely adult but more so the language. This book contains a lot of swearing. Not someone I love in books as a general rule but I did find that it fit the characterization and atmosphere here.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente”

  1. The content sounds like it would be perfect for a novella, so I’m hoping the author didn’t bloat it up into something longer. Based on your review, it sounds like the right length! Whenever I think of garbage and climate change, I always picture Wall-E, totally alone and cleaning the Earth. Have you seen that movie? Wall-E practices holding hands because he really, really wants to hold Eve’s hand, but because his hands are robotic, they make C shapes. My spouse recently pointed out that putting two C hand shapes together actually means “married” in ASL. Awwwwww.

    1. I think this was an expanded short story and it works well at the length it is. The whole Garbagetown element does remind me of the beginning of Wall-E! That’s so sweet about the C hands! I wonder if the creators knew that.

  2. Great review! I’ve had a hit and miss response to some of Valente’s other books, but I’ve been keen to give her work another shot and this one sounds very tempting!

    1. Thanks! What have you read by Valente? I’m only familiar with her kids series but I haven’t read them at all.

    2. Sorry for the late reply, I missed this somehow! I’ve read the first three books in her Fairyland series, which I really enjoyed, but I got on less well with The Melancholy of Mechagirl (short stories) and Oracles (poetry). I’ve yet to try an adult novel by her though, so perhaps I’d have better luck there!

  3. I’m not familiar with this author, but interesting to know she’s a middle grade fiction author as well. Albeit Garbagetown would scare off most readers just because of it’s name, but I agree with you that places like this seem more likely than I want to admit. Especially because so many slums in India are built in and around landfills, and around other people’s trash, living on top of a garbage heap isn’t so fantastical at all…

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