The Short Version: Sometime in a dangerous, destroyed future, a woman named Rachel survives on the fringes of a ruined city with her partner. They avoid creatures great and small, fight small territorial skirmishes, and eke out a life. But when Rachel brings home a strange creature, which she names Borne, everything changes. Who is Borne? What is he – and what will he become?
The Review: It is quite something to find an author relatively early in one’s adult reading career whose work you fall for almost instantly – and who then proceeds to not only not let you down, but in fact build upon everything that has come before with each successive work. I started reading Jeff VanderMeer in college, on I’m pretty sure a random whim that led me to City of Saints and Madmen and it has been a privilege to watch him become one of the foremost practitioners of the Weird in our popular culture. He’s the rare (these days) genre author who transcends his genre not only for a larger audience but for larger ideas too – all the while, never giving up on his own strange imagination.
If The Southern Reach Trilogy made Jeff a literary celebrity, by all rights Borne should make him a star. At once more ‘accessible’ and also stranger than Area X, Borne is the kind of book that has something for everyone: meditations on personhood and family, a surprisingly moving depiction of motherhood, a complicated romance, a building-sized giant floating bear. For everyone who complained about the gauzy and super-out-there conclusion (and I know that there are some who’ll argue that it doesn’t even deserve the term ‘conclusion’, although I disagree) to the Area X novels, this one is a far more traditional novel with a ‘satisfying’ ending. It is also somehow even stranger and more innovative & mind-bending than —
Wait, did you say ‘giant floating bear’?
Your reaction to the above, of course, determine whether or not this is a book for you – but I encourage you, if you had a negative immediate reaction, to push past it. Because while, yes, there is a giant floating bear called Mord and a deadly gang-leader called The Magician, these things are not what define the book. Instead, the book is defined by the beating heart of the relationship between Rachel and Borne: one of the best mother-child relationships in recent literature, regardless of genre.
Jeff’s books have always had strong relationships strengthening their stories – I think most immediately of Duncan Shriek and his sister – but I have to say that Rachel and Borne… I guess I have to say that they genuinely surprised me. I sympathised with Rachel as Wick raged against the intrusion of this strange creature into their delicately balanced lives, I hurt when Borne enters essentially his teenage years, and I found (all three times I’ve read the novel: once last summer, again at the end of 2016, and just now in 2017) that the final cumulative effect of the novel in an emotional context is “joy”, that most difficult of emotions to comprehend and capture. It is not pure happiness, but rather one tinged with sorrow and understanding and meaning. I felt what it might be like to have a child, and what it might be like to have a child in a world that can’t possibly be safe for it (but which is, inevitably, a world in which the child is far better prepared than I could realise). More than that, I considered our impact upon this world – something Jeff has long been interested in with his writing – and the ways in which we are destroying it. Like everything I’ve been reading, this book has changed in some ways since January. But most wonderfully, the fundamentals haven’t. This is still a book about inherent goodness, about a search for betterment both of oneself and for those you care for.
In the early days of this book’s existence, I saw Jeff describe it somewhere as part Chekhov, part Godzilla. It took me 25 years to understand how to like Chekhov, and it took me practically no time at all to understand how to like Godzilla. What does it mean to long for something, to search for it, to rebel against the cruel ordinary monotony of a daily life (a monotony that asserts itself whether you’re on the outskirts of a ruined futuristic city or on the outskirts of Moscow in a manor house or anywhere in between)? What does it mean to simply want to watch two giant creatures battle each other in an orgy of beautiful destruction? Can the two, the micro and the macro, the great and the small, ever be meaningfully combined? If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would’ve said no. But Jeff VanderMeer, master of the unexpected, proves that they can be. I can’t wait to see how many minds are, for lack of a better term, going to be blown by this book.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Laura Miller wrote far more eloquently than I’ll be able to about this book for The New Yorker and I encourage you to read her review as well. I read it and had the distinct pleasure of feeling not only like a major critic was getting it right when it came to a strange genre novel, but also that it couldn’t be happening to a better guy. Jeff is a singular talent and this is his most impressive achievement so far. I promise you your spring will be well-spent with this book by your side. You will laugh, you will think things are very strange indeed, and I’ll wager you might feel far more complicated emotions too. Who would’ve thought that a giant floating bear could provoke anything other than awe and/or laughter? Who would’ve thought that a sentient lump of inexplicable matter could make you cry? Of course Jeff did. Thank goodness, too.