The Premise: before I start, be assured that I am not making any of this up. This is genuinely the plot of this book. In a futuristic, post-apocalyptic wasteland of a city, Rachel scavenges to stay alive in the midst of a seemingly endless power struggle between a shady drug dealer, an even shadier corporation called the Company, and a giant, winged bear called Mord. Yes, you read that right. Everything changes for Rachel when she finds Borne, a weird alien-creature-thing that she brings home to the Balcony Cliffs, the decimated home she shares with Wick, her mysterious scientist lover. Then loads of weird stuff happens.
Thoughts: it is hard to put into words exactly how much and why I enjoyed this book. Jeff Vandermeer is a literal genius at creating mindblowingly peculiar worlds and inhabiting them with a combination of terrifying monsters and lunatics as well as everyman (or, more specifically, everywoman) type characters with whom the reader can relate; he did it with the astounding Southern Reach trilogy, and he does it again with Borne. There’s so much that’s great about this book, and I don’t use the term lightly (my former head of faculty had a pathological hatred of anyone using the word ‘great’ in their reports and I hear his voice telling me off every time I say it – here, even he would have to agree).
Firstly, the world-building in Borne is exemplary. We’re given just enough information about the collapse of civilisation to prevent frustration, but so much remains an enigma. Rachel’s city is decimated, both under the protection of and under attack from Mord, and the circumstances of his creation are gradually unravelled as the book goes on; let’s take a moment to admire a writer who can make a three storey-high flying bear a central part of a story without it rendering the whole thing ridiculous. The ravaged city itself is a scene we’re familiar with from so much post-apocalyptic writing, as well as both films and TV, but this familiarity is both used and subverted in Vandermeer’s novel; I still can’t get some of the images – like the Company building destroyed by Mord, or the warehouse where Rachel and Borne witness the effects of this broken world all too clearly – out of my mind.
Vandermeer’s characters are exquisitely drawn too. As with Annihilation, a female character is our representative in the fictional world, and I’m obsessed with the way Vandermeer creates these women; Rachel is tough but damaged, not a cliched way, but in a fashion that creates a whole world of contradictions, just like a real person. I felt really invested in her fight to survive, as well as her relationships with Borne and Wick.
The plot of Borne is spellbinding; there are so many intense developments, terrifying events and unpredictable twists that the book took me by surprise repeatedly. The premise is dizzying enough, but, suffice to say, the craziness continues throughout.
In Conclusion: Borne is a really, brilliantly creepy book. It’s not realistic (one would hope), but creates such profoundly and tangibly unsettling imagery that it’s hard to tear yourself away and refocus on the real world. Vandermeer’s brand of sci-fi is so effective and inventive; there’s no way this isn’t going to be on my top ten list at the end of 2017.