I was lucky enough to get an eARC of this new novella so I’ve been sitting on these feelings for months. I am so happy to finally be able to scream into the world just how brilliant and clever and heartbreaking a novella Cat Valente has written. It comes out tomorrow and you should all read it!
Thank you to Tordoctom and Netgalley for the ARC. It made my spring infinitely better.
THE PAST IS RED
by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 160 pages
My rating: 9/10
Opening line: My name is Tetley Abednego and I am the most hated girl in Garbagetown.
Catherynne M. Valente, the bestselling and award-winning creator of Space Opera and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland returns with The Past is Red, the enchanting, dark, funny, angry story of a girl who made two terrible mistakes: she told the truth and she dared to love the world.
The future is blue. Endless blue…except for a few small places that float across the hot, drowned world left behind by long-gone fossil fuel-guzzlers. One of those patches is a magical place called Garbagetown.
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she’s the only one who knows it. She’s the only one who knows a lot of things: that Garbagetown is the most wonderful place in the world, that it’s full of hope, that you can love someone and 66% hate them all at the same time.
But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.
The attentive Cat Valente reader will notice that this novella’s title goes really well with a short story of hers called “The Future is Blue” and if you liked that story, you will be happy to know that this book is actually a sequel to it. The novella’s first part is a reprint of said short story, but part two is all new and continues the story of Tetley Abednego, the most hated girl in Garbagetown.
As with many of Valente’s books, I don’t quite know where to begin my gushing. There will definitely be gushing because although she has been my favorite author for a number of years now, she still proves that she can get better with every book, no matter how short. I had hoped for a big chunky novel from her this year, but if we get two great novellas instead (the second one that’s coming out is called Comfort Me With Apples and sounds super creepy), I’ll be more than happy.
Tetley Abednego lives in Garbagetown, a heap of garbage approximately the size of Texas, that floats around on the Pacific. Tetley was born as the elder of twins in Candle Hole. Her house is made of wax, her early childhood is defined by the smells of the scented candles that make up her neighborhood. But Garbagetown has a lot more to offer, if you have an open heart and Tetley’s surprisingly sunny disposition. To her, it’s the best place in the world. Granted, that’s not too difficult to achieve when the rest of the world is… well, ocean. You see, many years ago, humanity from before – appropriately called Fuckwits – majorly fucked up the planet and now everything’s dead and submerged and all that’s left is Garbagetown and maybe a few Misery Boats.
Tetley grows up in Garbagetown and we get to witness the most formative of her experiences, like catching her name (I absolutely adored that piece of world building!), kissing a boy for the first time, discovering that even in Gargabetown, there’s still something like classism, and of course, the Thing that leads to her becoming the most hated girl in Garbagetown. It’s the reason she wakes up every day to a new slur smeared on her door, to people beating her up, it’s the reason she has to just take it and even thank her violator. The short story just on its own is already brilliant. Filled with clever world building and deep insights into human nature, it draws you in with this mystery, jumping back and forth between times, and on the sly delivering some highly quotable lines – as Valente always does.
The second part, The Past is Red, continues Tetley’s story and uses the same flashback/flashforward style as did the short story. And while it’s always clear and obvious what time setting we are currently in, this storytelling device is so well employed that it provides a few good twists along the way. Valente builds up certain expectations, or at the very least suspicions about Tetley’s past – like her mentioning she was married but isn’t anymore, or her talking to someone called Big Red, or the fact that she now lives on a boat – but the blanks filled in by the reader aren’t necessarily the whole truth. Discovering what really happened was such incredible fun and made me go “Oh thaaaaaat’s why” a few times. There was gasping and grabbing of the head. There were moments that left me open-mouthed and even more moments when I told my boyfriend “This is so gooood”.
Apart from the amazing world building, which is all the more impressive considering it’s achieved in a matter of about 50 pages, I have to talk more about Tetley as a character. She’s not stupid, not at all, but she has a naive sort of love for Garbagetown and everything about her way of life. Her parents don’t really love her – all their love goes to her twin brother with whom she shares a close bond – but Tetley doesn’t let that bother her too much. She adores her home, she loves her society, although she still sees its inequalities. She is the kind of person who is simply happy with what she has. No envy, no greed, just a pure, unadulterated joy for life. And if you think living on a heap of garbage is terrible (as did I), I promise Tetley will change your mind! She will make you love Pill Hill and Electric City, Toyland and her native Candle Hole. She will make you just as excited about discovering an old tape as she will make you care about her Oscar the Grouch backpack. It’s a strange world, Garbagetown, but after reading this book, I’m kind of taken with it.
Because there are several really great twists in this story, I won’t say anything about the plot. But I promise that, unlike some Valente novels, there is a plot. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, it is vastly readable, even funny at times, and always clever. For people who haven’t read the short story, even the end of that is a knife stuck in your chest and I believe everyone should have the pleasure of being stabbed in the heart (metaphorically speaking) by Cat Valente at least once in their lives. The second, much longer, part of the book offers some more twists, none of which I saw coming (yay!) and all of which hit me deep in the guts. Like all the best stories, this one sneaks up on you. It makes you love the characters without even noticing, and then it reveals things that change everything. Afterwards, just leaves you there, not quite knowing what to do with yourself. I’m not making this sound pleasant, but that’s actually my favorite kind of reading experience. The one where you can’t stop reading but you don’t want the book to end. And once you’re finished, you feel deflated and alone, like you just lost your best friend.
In a book set on a post-apocalyptic, post climate change Earth, mentions of how gloriously humanity messed things up are to be expected. But Valente doesn’t go the obvious route here, either. She never outright says what exactly happened – we all know how things will get that far, how our way of life can and probably will escalate. We just keep doing what we’re doing now and we’ll go down in Gargabetown history as the Fuckwits who broke the world…
Seems like someone should have thought of a rule that goes Do Not Fuck Your Only Planet to Death Under Any Circumstances. Seems like that should have been Rule Number One.
I wish I could tell you more about all the other amazing characters like Goodnight Moon, Mister, or King Xanax, but I want to give as little about this book away as possible. Let me just say that, despite my extremely high expectations, Valente managed to surpass anything I hoped to get from The Past is Red. It is a book that should be depressing but is utterly, utterly filled with hope. Its protagonist goes from cheerful Pollyanna to a much more mature adult who just can’t shake that hope habit of hers. She lets us in on a world that, although strange to us, is normal to the people who live in it, and she shows us that you don’t need much to achieve happiness.
Laslty, let me gush about that cover by John Hendrix. It is not only eye-catching and just plain gorgeous, it’s actually filled with a lot of detail that’s important in the book. I can’t wait to hold the paper copy in my hands!
MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfect!