A despotic flying bear ruling over the decrepit remains of a city. A shape-shifting creature of unknown origin that can have multiple eyes; flatten itself along walls and picks up ideas and language like a toddler growing up in a hyper fast time lapse. Added to the mix is a scavenger named Rachel who ventures out into the city to bring back scraps of food and biotech to her lover and survival partner Wick to create material that can help fortify and hide their home, the Balcony Cliffs, from all around them. Their enemies include the flying bear Mord, the forces of the mysterious Magician who controls parts of the city, and other scavengers. To say that the city is unforgiving and difficult to live in would be an understatement. Rachel and Wick live in a constant state of alert and with good reason; one wrong move and any one of their enemies could attack.
Mord is the creation of The Company, a sprawling business that created new species and creatures out of biotech and released them into the city to see how they would fare. Mord was The Company’s biggest project, and its biggest failure. As it lost control over the giant bear after granting it the power of flight, The Company fell into disarray and its employees scattered or eventually became Mord’s lunch. Wick was one such former employee but refuses to share what he did at The Company with Rachel, straining their relationship as she occasionally snoops in his room for answers.
Against this backdrop of uneasy alliances, constant threats, and secrets, enters the titular character: Borne. Rachel originally finds Borne “clinging to Mord’s fur like a half-closed sea anemone” emitting a smell of a wave, the brine in the air causing her to think that were no “mutilated, burned bodies dangling from broken streetlamps” around her. Intrigued by the find she brings it home and refuses to let Wick break it down into parts that he could use to build more biotech. Borne quickly becomes more than salvage to Rachel; establishing himself as a creature of untold intelligence and possibility. When he reveals he can talk Rachel takes it upon herself to teach him as much as she knows, kicking off a strange mother-creature relationship that becomes the book’s main focal point. As she becomes increasingly attached to Borne, her relationship with Wick, who looks upon the new member of their family with suspicion, grows strained as they continue to work together to make Balcony Cliffs safe from the outside world.
After having devoured VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy where Annihilation lured me into the mystery of Area X, I was expecting a similar sort of dense narrative to wade through. Where the Southern Reach explored the relationship between the natural world and humans, an alien form of nature establishing a pristine unlived area where a coastal town once used to be, Borne grounds itself in its gritty urban setting where nature has been altered and mutilated by humanity’s unthinking and unabashed tinkering with it. Despite the terrible conditions the characters find themselves in, Borne is ultimately a book about triumphing over one’s own demons, what it means to be a family, and hope.
Borne, amorphous and inquisitive, endears himself to the reader with his child-like behaviour and constant questioning. Borne is, for a lack of a better term, a new born, and his views on the city breathe fresh life into Rachel’s stale and bleak outlook. In a memorable moment she takes Borne to the balcony of their home and shows him the city with its crumbling buildings and polluted river below. Gazing at the river Borne declares it “beautiful” and Rachel begins looking at it from a new perspective. As Rachel’s bond with Borne deepens, her desire to protect him from the horrors of the world clash with reality as the impossibility of that desire is constantly reinforced by attacks from feral Mord proxies and genetically altered children.
Featured on many summer reading lists by publications such as The Washington Post and receiving rave reviews from The New York Times and The Guardian, Borne is a testament to VanderMeer’s inventiveness and above all his ability to write realistic scenes of human interaction (even if that interaction is with a sentient glob) making it an incredibly emotional and evocative narrative, establishing VanderMeer as an expert in world building and writing.
In Borne there will be a final battle, secrets about The Company will be revealed and more importantly, secrets about Rachel’s own life, making it ideal summer reading; a fantastic adventure story that is incredibly inventive and incredibly human in its outlook.