Rating: 2.5 stars
I feel sorry for this book. It has some interesting ideas, and a lot of the writing is very good. I was talking about it with my husband as we walked over to friends’ last night to play dice based board games. I was frustrated with the author, or maybe her editor, for not paring some of the detail back. It felt at times as though she had left all her back story notes in the book, all the things she needed to write about the society she was creating in order to know how her characters would move around it in relation to each other but that I as a reader didn’t need to get bogged down in. It could have been punchier.
I found it hard to get into. Partly because I was still thinking about the characters in The Natural Way of Things, partly because The City of Woven Streets is a fantasy dystopia and my brain was fixed in the hard reality of Charlotte Wood’s dystopia. It was such a transition that I had to start the book again to give myself chance to get into its rhythm.
The story is set on an unnamed island, similar to Venice in a way, but not based on Venice. The island is divided into sectors based on the equivalent of craft guilds. There are weavers in the House of Webs, writers in the House of Words and ink makers in the House of Inks. Then there is the House of the Tainted, where this society’s untouchables are sent. Merchants come and go, but the inhabitants of the island rarely leave and new residents rarely arrive from outside. That is until a strange girl is found assaulted in the street. She bears a mysterious tattoo in invisible ink that connects her to one of the weavers.
The island floods every night. Transport is by foot along rope bridges that lower from buildings when the water rises, and along the streets when the flood has receded, or by air gondolas that can move along the canals or through the air on cables. There was a strange mix of Gothic and Futurist about the society. Sometimes it felt like something H G Wells might describe, sometimes like Huxley’s Brave New World. Mostly it made me think of the isolated Town in Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World, and the monastery in Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
I wasn’t sure where the island was located, whether on Earth or in some other dimension. If this was a future civilisation, some catastrophe had taken place causing the planet’s waters to rise and affecting technology. There are no electric lights, only candles and glass globes filled with bioluminescent algae. The society is dependent on a type of jellyfish, the singing medulla, which is an indicator of stability in the ecosystem and a form of medicine.
Women are not supposed to read or write. The House of Words is a male domain. Some women high up in the House of Webs can read, but there is suspicion about any other woman who is literate.
The society has a mythology, centred on the Council that rules the society. The civilisation was carved out by pioneers who reclaimed the island from wild beasts and who set up trading routes. A class of people called Dreamers were purged from society, and dreams are one aspect of what it is to be Tainted. This made me think of Zamyatin’s We. Every year, people affiliated to a House of the Crafts receive a new tattoo. As part of this ritual, they visit the Museum of Pure Sleep and have the mythology explained to them. It’s a form of indoctrination. The other part of the ritual is the lottery that apparently gains one Dreamer per year a pardon. The pardon involves banishment from the island.
All of this is laid out over the first couple of chapters. While I was reading it, I was waiting for the story to start. It felt slightly clumsy, in the way exposition often can.
Once the story started, it felt very similar to The Name of the Rose. The island is like the monastery. The dream-plague is a heresy to be rooted out and its sufferers purged. Eliana is the main character, a weaver in the House of Webs. She has a couple of secrets. At first only her brother knows them, but as she gets involved in the mystery of Valeria, the assaulted girl, others become party to them, too. Strangers seek her out to pass on tokens. She is observant of those around her and notices when people do not behave quite as an obedient citizen should. She is drawn into a secret world and all is revealed to not be as the Council would have people believe.
Every so often, the chapters are divided by passages in italics that start and end in the middle of sentences. I’m not sure what that was about. They might have been dreams, they might have been snatches of someone telling a story.
As Itäranta develops her world, the story becomes slightly more engaging, but I was never fully absorbed by it. There was something lacking in it. Perhaps it was that it all felt familiar already, in terms of the plot, and the set dressing of the island, its secret society/resistance movement, the oppressive regime, and the prehistoric creatures hidden in a subterranean chamber, wasn’t different enough to excite me. I found myself thinking about other things as I read, not even registering what I was reading, and it not really mattering too much.
One thing I liked was the easy way Itäranta introduced that Eliana and Valeria were attracted to each other and started a relationship. There was no angst about it for them. There’s also an intersex character in the book, used mainly as a plot development tool, unfortunately, but in a sympathetic way.
The ending really irritated me. The book could have ended sooner for me, but Itäranta clearly didn’t feel she had spelled her allegory out sufficiently so I had to read through the moral of the tale being absolutely hammered out. I’d worked it out for myself quite quickly, once the story properly got going.
Talking about it with my husband, we wondered whether Itäranta’s studies on a Creative Writing MA had encouraged her to keep lots of options open, because it had that feel of someone writing a novel in the hope it might be optioned for a film, then have a TV spin off, and maybe a parallel series stemming from its ambiguity at the end, maybe a game as well. A lot of the time while I was reading it felt as though it was a treatment for a dice based board game, with all the detail Itäranta had provided.
It’s by no means a terrible book. It just needed something more to make it stand out.