There’s no denying that this is a beautifully written book. Catherynne M Valente takes Russian and Slavic folktales and melds them with Russian, particularly Leningrad, history of the early 20th century. Her descriptions of falling in love and of the secret languages and compromises of marriage make for compelling, wholly believable and empathetic reading.
And yet, and yet. When I find myself disliking a book but not actually able to elucidate why, I tend to turn to other reviewers to see if they felt similarly but had an easier time of describing their discomfort. In the case of this book, especially, that helped a lot. Many other reviewers, especially those of a Russian/Slavic heritage, brought up the issue of cultural appropriation. I can’t really speak to the authenticity of her work, to how Russian it really is (a bit more on that later) but I can tell you that when she talks about life and power, my entire being rebels at the ideas she’s presenting as, if not somehow good and aspirational, at least acceptable, even romantic.
I’m not even sure if the rest of this discussion counts as spoiler-y because Deathless is less a story than a whole lot of metaphors layered and strung together. Quite artistically, granted: there’s no doubt that Ms Valente writes beautifully. Essentially, a young woman — no. A girl in Leningrad falls in love with Koschei the Deathless, who here is presented as the Tsar of Life, a god/archetype who represents the long, grinding, materially rich but ultimately despairing fate of all mortals: to succumb to his brother, the Tsar of Death. Life is presented not as a gift but as a burden, not as a source of joy but a font of pain. It is made out to be grotesque. And yes, it is all these things, but it’s also so much more. Life is endless possibilities and hope and renewal, but that is rarely (if ever!) brought up in this book. To a certain extent, Deathless was very much like a long discussion with my depressive Bulgarian friend, Slav: he and I are not unfamiliar with the trope of the Eastern European as nihilist, one he occasionally propagandizes for all he’s worth. But his lived experience is not the only kind of Slavic experience, and that lack of diversity in a book that claims to retell the folklore of the region is, at best, disquieting.
That was my issue with her representation of Life. Now we get to the even more problematic representation of Power. Politically, I thought she did a good job, but when it came to the personal relationships, I was, once more, aghast. The creepiness of the romance between Marya and Koschei aside (honestly, it felt a lot like a better written, more explicitly fairy tale version of 50 Shades Of Grey,) I really, really hated the oft-bandied idea that the main concern in marriage is “Who rules?” I’ve been married for 7 years now, more or less successfully: my husband and I get along quite well, and we have three wonderful children we’re devoted to. We have never engaged in the insane power struggles that define the romantic relationship at the heart of this book. Our marriage recognizes each other as individuals, and we try to be good to one another while still honoring our own needs. We don’t make threats and ultimatums like Marya and Koschei (and later Ivan) do because that is all toxic bullshit. We’re not a perfect couple by any means, but we’re in a far, far healthier place than the self-destructive insanity of the main romances depicted in this book.
And it’s not like I think bad marriages shouldn’t be depicted in popular culture. I loved the dysfunctional marriage at the heart of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because it was never romanticized. Marriage can be a shitshow, but representations of such should be considered a cautionary tale, not a love for the ages. Which is why it was even more perplexing when Ms Valente would write so movingly about the compromises of matrimony. Any relationship involves a push and pull, but the healthy ones aren’t about controlling your partner: two vastly differing concepts that Ms Valente never reconciled in this book.
And then the book just sort of ended, and I was all “Ugh, I have to read another book to get an actual story out of this?” Maaaaaybe I will, eventually? There’s no denying that Ms Valente has some great ideas and a lovely style, but her endorsement of mentally unhealthy attitudes (wrapped up in a vaguely “oh but this is just how Russians are” veneer) really bothers me. I really wanted to like this book, but instead I’m kinda grossed out.