It’s been ages since I wrote about a book for grown-ups. This one, The Past Is Red (to be released July 20, 2021; if you use that link, you can request a signed and personalized copy from a fabulous indie book shop!) unequivocally, is for grown-ups. But I’m still recommending it to you, and to everyone.
How it happened was this:
Catherynne M. Valente is one of my favourite authors working today, and though I first encountered her as an author of novels for kids (Fairyland—soon being released in a boxed set!), she, like Neil Gaiman, is very much an Author of Many Kinds. In fact, the reason I started reading her books was due to a Neil Gaiman blurb, and I really felt a kinship of wildness in their work as I read: “Let me do all the things ever” they seem to tell you.
So she writes poetry and novellas and that chonky fantasy series and science fiction and basically everything but gritty realism. I hope she never does write gritty realism because I’d end up reading it and my system couldn’t take the shock.
In June 2018, Subterranean Press published a gorgeous collection from Cat Valente, The Future Is Blue, and the title novella of the collection, well. You could say it was a success, but since this is my blog I’m going to say my reaction: I’ve never been quite the same person since. It was shattering. Partly it was shattering because of the devastation and hope and heartache of the story, but in large part it was because I do not read stories about “what happens when human beings have literally trashed the planet to the point of the collapse of civilization and those who are left are living on a floating mound of garbage called Garbagetown.” I know books about devastation and post-apocalyptic nightmares are out there—for other people, not for me. But I read it, voluntarily, and I thought it was beyond good, I thought it was magnificent, and I still haven’t recovered from the shock.
When The Past Is Red was announced I was hardly surprised—of course there had to be more. (Though my daughter immediately asked “Will there also be The Present Is Purple? Blue and red make purple! And Past and Purple alliterate.”) I pre-ordered it, but I was scared. I mean… I barely survived The Future Is Blue. “I have until July,” I thought, morosely, “then I’ll see if I make it.”
Then another book by Cat Valente was announced that got me so excited that I wrote to Tor to see if I could get a review copy. It was a gamble: who’s crazy enough to give a kids’ book reviewer a Grown-Up Book to review? Especially from an author as popular as Catherynne M. Valente? I made my politely stupid and absurd pitch, but the publicist actually replied without laughing in my face and kindly offered me not only that book (review to come—in the future) but this one. I helplessly said “yes, please and thank you.” And thought to myself “welp I’m screwed, this is it.”
First I’m going to tell you: this book is beautifully designed, and it has The Future Is Blue before The Past Is Red, all in one tidy volume, in case you missed the Subterranean Press physical edition (you can still get the collection as an ebook). The cover art is insanely well done, by John Hendrix.
Second, despite my fears, I’m actually still alive, even though I did have crazy dreams after reading The Past Is Red.
The Past Is Red may tell a terrible story of the dregs of a bloated, overgrown, and ultimately depleted world, but it’s an oddly hopeful, beautiful, healing story about loss, death, and spiritual resilience despite apparent resignation.
And, in the face of Covid-19… I couldn’t help thinking it was the ultimate guide to creating and maintaining loving relationships in the face of the most drastic social distancing. Ostracized, left behind, and loathed on a physical and spiritual level, our protagonist, Tetley Abednego, never loses sight of how the depths of humanity are available to everyone, even on a floating pile of garbage. Unlike the fuckwits who trashed the earth and wasted our world, she knows who and what we can be, with or without a jacuzzi. Unlike the inheritors of the fuckwits who continue to hate her because they want to be fuckwits, Tetley looks herself and her world in the eye and knows that there is enough.
Tetley was never even supposed to make it through childhood, and she was, over and over again, not supposed to survive, she wasn’t even wanted. By the end of The Future Is Blue, she’s the most hated girl in Garbagetown. Despite that, she is the unflinchingly realistic voice of affirmation and acceptance in the face of hatred— even her own hatred— everyone needs to hear.
There is hope, life matters, and you, in and of yourself, are enough. Sure, we’re all garbage, but we’re beautiful garbage. And we matter.
It was the most devastating form of healing I’ve endured. Tetley totally screws with you, along with herself, in her telling of this story, but she is the most sympathetic and unflinching narrator I’ve met in a while. You will hurt. But not out of Tetley’s malice; out of her honest, brutal love for humanity.
There are so many books out there, for kids and for adults, about the importance of saving this one, precious planet. But I would argue that absolutely no one drives home the genuine importance of this planet and this life better than Tetley, even as she shows us the expendable garbage of our world.
Read this, and yes I do recommend a pre-order from Print in Portland so you can get a signed copy, and then pick up some Sy Montgomery and let the value of every life, everywhere, wash over you.