I received this book months ago, now, in my first (and only) Quarterly Box. I originally ordered it because the box is curated by the author and includes both their novel (with annotations!) and two other books that they used as inspiration for, or are in some other way related, to their own book. I thought it was such a cool idea. And really, it is. I thought the reading experience with the little notes from the author about where certain ideas came from, etc., was super unique and fascinating. And this was a really good book to have that for – it’s just so…weird…that being able to see where some of the author’s inspiration is from is extra necessary insight. Anyways, there’s my reason for reading Borne as my first Vandermeer, and not Annihilation (which is what most people seem to be doing, since the movie adaptation comes out this year). As a complete side-note: THAT COVER (*heart eyes*).
This is Rachel’s story. Rachel lives is a sort of futuristic post-apocalyptic ruin of a city in crumbling apartment cliffs with her secretive partner named Wick. The city itself is ruled over by a giant bear named Mord and is suffering in the midst of a power struggle between Mord and a mysterious figure known as the Magician. One day, while out scavenging for old biotech, Rachel finds/rescues Borne – a sort of shape changing biological weapon thing – who she more or less “raises” and starts to see as her child. It causes a rift between herself and Wick, but she can’t really help getting attached to Borne. And as time goes and Borne seems more and more dangerous, Rachel faces some tough decisions about him, her relationship with Wick, and, over it all, how to survive in the midst of the decay and peril that is the city. That’s about the best I can do in describing this plot of what is, mostly, an amorphous story of the broken-down future.
I’ll start with my critique of the plot, since I just gave you my best try at summarizing it. I felt like, for at least the first 2/3 of the book, nothing happened. It seemed like the most drawn out stage-setting opening sequence ever. And maybe that was necessary, because literally everything the author introduced was somehow foreign, bizarre, and more or less utterly unrecognizable. Descriptions of everything from the city itself to the Balcony Cliffs where Rachel and Wick live to Borne to the biotech (OMG the biotech) were so outside of my (really everyone’s, since they’re totally made up) knowledge zone that I had to put in a lot of effort in attempting to imagine what it all looked like or how it worked. It was not an easy story to get into or to understand – so as a reader I recommend going in with that in mind. The last third of the book definitely picked up the pace though. Things started to actually happen. Mord and the Magician face legitimate challenges to their rule, Wick and Rachel are forced into action (so things must needs start happening), and Borne’s real part to play in the story becomes clearer. Side note: to that end, I was not a huge fan of the narrator foreshadowing from Rachel throughout the novel – I felt like the air of foreboding was strong enough without her saying “if only I had known…” what seemed like an excessive number of times. Regardless, the end, with reveals of some of both Wick’s and Rachel’s secrets and how they handle that, is really interesting, but nothing spectacular (i.e. – don’t expect fireworks). It’s worth noting though, that for all things got built up, that less than explosive denouement doesn’t seem like a let-down or anticlimactic. In fact, I feel like it fits in well with the tone of the story altogether. And the very end (no spoilers, promise), what might be considered a sort of epilogue to this main tale, was very cool. I really loved the “old” Rachel looking at herself as others would, with that outside perspective, and how others would never see the adventures in her past that she secretly holds inside herself.
Even though I felt like the plot itself read, at times, less than compulsively, the writing itself was absolutely awe-inspiring. Vandermeer’s use and mastery of language is just something else. Every single word is chosen carefully and specifically and the poetic flow of the writing is on point. It’s refined, evocative, and gorgeously creepy. As I mentioned, the air of doom that sits heavily over everything is tangible from page one and all the way through until the end. It never lets up, which is awesome and exhausting for the reader, and incredibly impressive from the author. The exchanges between Borne and Rachel are some of my favorites. Vandermeer’s manipulation of language is playful and remarkable and each exchange is intricate and the connections made are creative and fascinating.
Overall, Vandermeer’s ability to write the weird and creepy is extraordinary. Although it definitely took me time and effort to get into and start to “understand” this world, it is so fully realized that the end experience is worth it. And, if you haven’t already caught on, I thought the prose itself was unmatched. If you are someone who loves getting lost in another world when you read, this is one that will really come to life and pull you in. It’s not fast and it’s not easy, but if you’re an “ambiance” reader, than this is completely worth it.
Some pull quotes, because I couldn’t not:
“Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.”
“The killing thing, the thing I couldn’t get over, is that it was beautiful. It was so incredibly beautiful, and I’d never seen that before. In the strange dark sea-blue of late afternoon, the river below splashing in lavender, gold, and orange up against the numerous rock islands and their outcroppings of trees…the river looked amazing. The Balcony Cliffs in that light took on a luminous deep color that was almost black but not, almost blue but not, the jutting shadows solid and cool.”
“As we removed the falsehood, as we built up the truth, damaged places became restored, whole rooms inside flickered with at least a semblance of light, and we cast the intruder farther out into the cold.”
“…the wrenching dislocation of trying to make two separate worlds match up, the one that was normal and the one that was grotesque, the old and the new – the struggle to make the mundane and the impossible coexist…”
“You forgive if you can forgive yourself, or live with what you’ve done. If you cannot live with what you have done, you cannot live with what others have done either.”
“We all just want to be people, and none of us know what that really means.”
“Life is still hard, but it is fair, and there is more joy in it that doesn’t feast on heartbreak.”