Catherynne M. Valente is always difficult to review. She is a poet of a prose author, and her writing is dense and baroque- sometimes excessively so. The writing of Under in the Mere (2009) has a dream-like surreal quality which makes it difficult to come to certain conclusions about how the novella is to read.
Is Under in the Mere good? The answer is certainly a yes. The imagery is astounding; the combination of Arthurian myth and Californian deserts resonate at a perfect- well, I’m not sure of the metaphor. It works. The illustrations are brilliant, pen-and-ink images of Death playing chess, Galahad slumped in a cheap bar. The simplicity of James A. Owen and Jeremy Owen’s work serves as the perfect foil to Valente’s sometimes labyrinthine prose.
The novella itself is divided into chapters/short stories, each focusing on an individual in King Arthur’s court. It has been a while since I read any of the Matter of Britain, but these are not the same as the tales my father read to me as a child. Lancelot is broken; Kay is a hollow thing, driven by his love of Arthur; Mordred is… oh, Mordred. And poor, poor Dagonet, whose story will break your heart as it did mine. There is a thread of continuity throughout -sometimes invisible, ever present- as each of the knights Quests in the name of Arthur, while the Lady ever seeks the King.
This is not a fantasy, a novel in the regular sense. The plot is hidden in layers of metaphor and poetic prose. It is not easy reading. I’faith, it took me longer to read than a far longer book due to sheer exhaustion. If one has a taste for the wrought -and I do- then it is enjoyable, but it is never relaxing.
If there is a real weakness to the novel, then this is it. The characters Valente paints with her wordbrush sound much the same. Rendered into complex, dreaming prose-verse, characterisation is difficult to discern. Lancelot is not Galahad, and their stories sound and feel and remember differently, yet the style is distinct. It is not unpleasant, but I cannot imagine that all would enjoy it.
I am an unabashed fan of reinterpretations of Arthurian myth. I love words for the sheer sake of words, and writing that glories in being gilded, ornate and glowing without cause. Under in the Mere is rich and excessive like the very best of dark chocolate.
Read it with a glass of port.