Have you ever been asked to describe your best friend to someone and felt unequal to the task? “He’s great- so creative! He, uh… is really funny and always just gets me.” I have that feeling whenever someone asks me about my favorite book. That sinking feeling drops my stomach like a stone, because very little can be done to attempt to encapsulate my favorite book. It contains legions. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente is set during World War II in Russia, and spans a good thirty or forty years, along with some extra time in a place where time doesn’t seem to pass. It’s not a well-known book. It should be.
If you want the capsule review, Marya Morevna grows up in Russia in a house on Gorokhovaya Street. As she grow up, she sees three birds fall out a tree to become men and marry her sisters. She resolves to catch her own future husband’s true form so that she will know him truly before she marries. Of course, she misses this, and marries Koschei the Deathless. Koschei is the Tsar of Death, in a world where everything is split between he and his six tsar and tsaritsa siblings. He takes Marya “across thrice nine kingdoms, thrice nine republics, the whole of the world, between Petrograd and Koschei’s country” to a place called Buyan, where the walls of buildings are covered in flesh that gets goosebumps when a breeze blows through, and the fountains run with blood. There, Marya meets and befriends three companions, who help her pass the tests devised by Koschei’s sister Baba Yaga when she comes to call. Marya has finally been declared fit to be Koschei’s wife when the Tsar of Life appears, taking the land of Buyan for his own and killing everyone in it. Marya learns first-hand the realities of this endless war between Life and Death, and becomes a general for Koschei. She meets a handsome soldier named Ivan, who is fighting for Russia, falls in love with his humanity, and returns home with him to Petrograd, to the house she grew up in.
The story continues on from there, with Koschei returning for Marya, and what I am always struck by as I read is that even though she is surrounded by powerful men, she has such agency to make her own choices when it comes to the path her life will take. Marya Morevna is no wilting flower, no damsel in distress. She is cared for by the men in her life, but she is never directly in need of being saved by them. Furthermore, she stands by her choices. I never read her as defensive or rationalizing when she argues why she makes decisions. Koschei sees her as an equal, and for the most part, treats her as such. This is important because he is not quite human. She is as ordinary a girl as you could devise, maybe more clever and more of an independent thinker, but there is nothing to mark her out as one who can best someone like Koschei. She does so with grit and passion and intelligence.
Valente not only builds you a beautiful world using complex, repetitive language, she destroys it and rebuilds it several times throughout the story. Locations are used to contrast against each other, showing lush richness in a place of plenty and stark meagerness in a war-torn home. She builds, destroys, and rebuilds Marya’s relationships with Koschei and Ivan much the same way. Every time I read Deathless, I find myself and my relationships mirrored back to me in a different way. Valente makes it frighteningly easy to imagine myself as Marya- a strong, independent, beautiful woman who makes her own choices, growing from the youngest of four daughters into the equal of not only a powerful man, but the man who has control over a mystical and powerful secret.
The story is couched in the kind of language you can drink slowly, like hot tea. It warms you from the inside, and is beautiful enough to read for the sensation of having read it alone. I love the afterglow of finishing this book. Valente doesn’t use overly complicated language, but her word choice is absolute perfection. It’s a great study in descriptive language done in the most concise way possible.
I could write a novel myself on the use of parallel language. Marya Morevna’s sisters each meet a husband who appears as a bird in a tree, before falling to the ground, bouncing up as a man, and going to the door to ask for the girl in the window. Marya’s three older sisters “[fill] like [a pail of water; a silk balloon; a wineskin] at the sight of her handsome husband.” On Marya’s later trip back home, her sisters use similar lines to chastise her for knowing their husbands were birds: “But then, you always knew he was a bird, didn’t you? [Clever girl; traitorous girl; wicked girl].” Every time I delve for the deeper meaning of why these direct parallels are important or special, I end up talking myself in circles. Safe to say they are beautiful, and add the flair of a folktale. It’s easy to picture yourself sitting around a fire listening to someone tell you this tale on a cold winter’s night.
But this book, this wonderful book, is about more than a girl with three sisters who marry birds. It’s about what in life is hidden from us, what we are not quick enough to notice, thoughts on what makes a marriage, who is to rule, on shouldering as much or more than one can bear, and what to do when the war is always going badly. It’s about losing humanity, and finding it again amidst war. It’s the ordinary equal to the extraordinary.
I don’t think there is a single chapter of Deathless I haven’t marked up to pieces. In my latest re-reading, I was most struck by this: “I savor bitterness— it is born of experience. It is the privilege of one who has truly lived.”
Lit and Love,
Read on and check out Amy’s Favorite Book: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.