In Borne, Jeff Vandermeer, the author who brought us the superb Southern Reach trilogy, once again explores the power and wonder of nature through a mind-bending, thrilling tale.
Borne tells the story of main character Rachel and her struggle to survive in a dystopian world ravaged by ‘The Company’ and the skyscraper-sized bear they created, Mord. There are many dangers that must be negotiated including the mutated children, Mord Proxies and The Magician. Rachel spends her days trying to survive in an old apartment block known as the Balcony Cliffs along with the enigmatic scientist, Wick. While out scavenging for supplies, Rachel discovers the mysterious creature that becomes known as Borne, clinging to the side of Mord, whom Rachel scales in order to scavenge from. To give away any more of the plot would spoil the many twists and turns it takes you on as Vandermeer leads you through the horrifying, toxic and yet beautiful world he has created, but safe to say the creature that Rachel eventually names Borne is not what it first seems to be.
Few people can create a world like Vandermeer. In the Southern Reach trilogy, he brought us the mystical, terrifying Area X. Once again, he has built a magnificent environment for his story in Borne. Each page drips with danger and wonder in equal measure. The poisoned, destroyed city which nearly the entire story is set, so perfectly encapsulates the story.
Readers of the Southern Reach trilogy will recognise many of the same themes in Borne. If you haven’t read the trilogy, which you really, really should, you will still recognise Vandermeer’s message within the first few pages as he hammers it home so relentlessly. The struggle between nature and society, the negative impact we have on our surroundings in the name of progress and how ultimately it will lead to our downfall. Nature manages to find a way to survive long after humans have all but destroyed themselves. Given the current situation in Australia this felt even more poignant as I read it.
Another theme which runs through the entire story, is the inability to trust anyone, even those you are closest to. Rachel is unsure of every character, even the ones that she loves such as Borne and arguably Wick. She never fully trusts anyone. There is one scene which leads to the characters having to come up with phrases to prove they are who they say they are. The reader joins Rachel in trying to piece together which conversations can be trusted as a result of this. This gives the story a creeping paranoia, adding to the many unsettling dimensions at play. It is not until the very end of the story that a version of the truth is presented to you. Whether you accept it in its entirety or not is up to you.
The interactions between Rachel and Wick are a joy to read. Two people brought together through desperation, struggling to survive against the odds. Both battling to understand the other, on the verge of leaving but ultimately not having any choice in the matter as they need one another to survive. Seemingly complete opposites, Rachel loves the creature known as Borne like a mother, Wick is seemingly terrified of it. In a book so full of fantastical creatures and events, this is the element that has stuck with me most since finishing it. While other stories might become lost in endless descriptions of fresh horrors, he always knows when to pull back and present us with the human stories at the centre of the story.
“That is the most ironic thing; that I thought betraying you was a firm of being trustworthy, as if the world were upside down.”Borne is published in the UK by 4th Estate London.
There are elements of the book I didn’t enjoy as much. The Magician is a character I found difficult to grasp. In a world so full of menace, she felt unnecessary and her threat forced. In my reading of the book, she simply didn’t fit into the world as naturally and easily as the other factors at play. While her presence in the story in no way lessens the quality, I felt that in a book with such tight, precise writing it was a rare moment of wastage. The story slowed at these moments which was a stark contrast to the rest of it.
The creatures of Borne are simply wonderful, however. Borne itself is a fascinating character; morphing, adapting, sometimes playful, sometimes menacing. It is easy to understand why Rachel is so protective of it. It is hard to talk about Borne without giving away too much of the plot. The plethora of creatures scattered throughout this world are so imaginative and intriguing. With each new discovery there is a fresh sense of delight and surprise. At the end of the book there is a bestiary, which even on its own would be a fascinating book. With detailed descriptions of each creature in the world and wonderful illustrations by Eric Nyquist, it is a lovely touch.
Borne is a fantastic novel. Sometimes the story slows more than I would like, but that is only noticeable because the rest of the book has such a ferocious pace. The book manages to be moving, funny, scary and heart-wrenching time and time again. It is as good as any of the Southern Reach trilogy, it is a fantastic jumping in point for anyone who has yet to experience Jeff Vandermeer’s marvellous imagination and storytelling. With an adaptation to come from AMC for television, now is an excellent time to pick up the book and experience it for yourself. Quite how they will go about filming this story and creating this world I don’t know, but that’s another discussion for another day. There are also two follow up stories set in the same universe: The Strange Bird: A Borne Story and the recently published Dead Astronauts. I will be reading both so keep an eye out for those reviews!
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