This book sat on my shelf for ages before I finally picked it up. I loved VanderMeer’s first three novellas, all part of the Southern Reach trilogy, so it’s unclear why it took me so long to pick up Borne. Once I finally got around to reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
Borne is set in a dystopian city ruined by “the Company”, a corporation responsible for conducting odd scientific experiments on biological matter, and then setting loose the specimens. Once free, the biotech creatures – in particular, a flying bear as tall as a multi-story building – lay waste to the city. The main character, Rachel, is a scavenger who scours the metropolitan wasteland for salvageable items which she brings back to her partner, Wick, a former employee of the Company. Wick uses the salvage to repair, and newly invent, various biotech items for his and Rachel’s survival. Together they live in a protected enclave, set with numerous traps to keep out unwanted visitors. Wick is mistrustful of everyone, including Rachel. When Rachel brings home what appears to be a tiny plant she plucked from the back of the aforementioned giant biotech bear, Wick wants her to despose of it. Instead she cares for it, as the “plant” grows, becomes sentient, starts to speak, and eventually reveals a diverse range of abilities. She names it “Borne”, and raises it like a child.
If you are thinking, as you read this post, that the book sounds a bit silly – flying bears and talking plants – I can’t say I blame you. In the beginning pages, I was also skeptical. It seemed far-fetched and overly imagined. Yet, the genius of Jeff VanderMeer is his beautiful and utterly captivating writing style which lulls readers into a pleasant suspension of disbelief. His style is so specifically his own. In this book, and in his previously published Southern Reach trilogy, he fabricates such a unique environment; always fraught with surreal creatures and set in dysfunctional societies. There is an ambience to his writing unlike any other novel I’ve read.
When Rachel first finds Borne she describes it like a sea anemone, and states:
“Instead, for a dangerous moment, this thing I’d found was from the tidal pools of my youth, before I’d come to the city. I could smell the pressed-flower twist of the salt and feel the wind, know the chill of the water rippling over my feet… as I looked toward the horizon and the white sails of ships that told of visitors from beyond our island. If I had ever lived on an island. If that had ever been true”
This passage is quintessentially VanderMeer. Just as the prose begin to subdue the reader into a poetic calm, VanderMeer undermines the reader’s sense of trust and comfort. The main character questions her own reality; her ability to accurately remember where she lived in her youth. If the main character is unsure of what to believe, what should the reader believe? The question of truth – what is real, who can be trusted – is at the core of each of VanderMeer’s novels. He creates beautiful worlds built on uneasy, nearly uninhabitable foundations.
For this reason, Borne is not for the faint of heart. VanderMeer’s writing is as dazzling as it is dark. You will be drawn in by the language, by the curious nature of the story, and find yourself in a world unsettling and dangerous. As with all great dystopian literature, you might wonder, as you read, whether our society is entirely dissimilar to VanderMeer’s fiction. Are we on the fractured brink?