Another gorgeous and strange novel from the mighty lighthouse keeper of the Weird, Jeff VanderMeer (whose Southern Reach Trilogy blew me away a few years ago and is still the series I most often recommend to my friends and clients).
Borne is a story about nature vs nurture, and about love, set in a city ruined by a biotech-related ecological disaster. The broken city crawls with vines, feral children, and mutated semi-artificial creatures created by the reckless “Company,” and is also filled with VanderMeer’s trademark mix of scientific beauty and uncanny biological horrors (brrr, those animals with eerily human faces).
The novel starts when Rachel, out on a scavenging mission, finds a strange creature: a kind of vase-shaped plant or sea anemone that strobes with cephalopod colors and fills her senses with perfumes of her island childhood. She brings it home to the Balcony Cliffs, a crumbling, moss-covered apartment complex she shares with her partner Wick.
The creature, which she names Borne, begins to eat, and grow, and speak, and their formerly two-person family is changed forever.
I think this is one of the first books I’ve read where I almost wished nothing would happen after the initial set-up. I loved the slow reveal of the characters’ secrets, and I might have been happy just wandering the ruins of the Balcony Cliffs forever.
VanderMeer’s imagery is usually beautiful and disturbing all at once, like the view of the three fallen astronauts, sun-bleached and “planted like tulips” in the ground, bones spilling from their face-plates, and his descriptions are so vivid you can almost smell the carrion and vanilla. Out in the city, the daylight is often blocked by a vast shadow of a giant flying bear named Mord, a Company experiment who now dwells in the crumbling ruins of the building.
The de facto ruler of our city had risen into the sky and come close to where I lay hidden, to slake his thirst by opening his great maw and scraping his muzzle across the polluted riverbed to the north. No one but Mord could drink from that river and live; the Company had made him that way. Then he sprang up into the blue again, a murderer light as a dandelion seed. When he found prey, a ways off to the east, under the scowl of rainless clouds, Mord dove from on high and relieved some screaming pieces of meat of their breath. Reduced them to a red mist, a roiling wave of the foulest breath imaginable. Sometimes the blood made him sneeze.
A major theme of the novel is parenting, with all its wonder and tantrums and brilliant childhood logic. As Borne grows, he (adorably) plucks new expressions from storybooks or overheard conversations, trying them out to get what he wants–mostly to be allowed out into the city with Rachel.
“I want to go,” Borne said, as if the city were just another tunnel. “I should go. It’s settled. I’ll go.”
He liked to settle things before I could decide. “You can’t go, Borne,” I said.
It’s hard not to love a creature who decorates every new experience with collections of recently discovered words. Like when he gazes up at the stars from one of the rotting balconies of their home, reaching out a tentacle as if to touch them…
“Diabolical,” he said, still captivated by what lay above. “Diabolical. Deadly. Delirious. Deep.” Four new words he’d been trying out. Except he had not learned “diabolical” from me, and I felt a twinge. Some book, some other source.
The book is not just about parenting of little humans but of other species too. I’ve always been fascinated by how we share our shelter, food and couch-space with intelligent predators, and Borne’s conflicts with Rachel and with his nature capture so much of this rewarding but sometimes traumatizing friendship between species.
“I do not know when I am being what they want me to be and when I am myself. It is better when I am ‘cute.’ It is safer.” — Borne.
Like Borne, our predator-babies just want to be told they’re good persons, but they’ll never really understand why we think certain things are “not nice. Not nice!” Why is it so wrong (I’ve imagined my dog asking) to blissfully roll in rotten roadkill, or to murder that little bunny and toss the corpse in front of gasping children. Why is it “not cool” to drag a skeleton indoors for everyone to admire?
Like Rachel, we forgive our monsters for their terrible deeds, because being a monster is just their nature. We wash the corruption out of their fur and let them sit on the furniture again, and we bury the tiny skeletons of their victims in the garden. We smile and harbor our beautiful killers because we love them.
Borne became sea-green, and all soft, diaphanous surfaces and reflected light. “But I love you,” Borne said. “You’re my family.”
“I love you, too, Borne,” I said, and it was true. “But that doesn’t change things.”
There’s much more to this book than what I’ve said, and I recommend it along with all the others by the same author. It’s very different to the Southern Reach trilogy in some ways, but it still had that haunting green atmosphere: the creeping organic horror, nature’s indifference to individual life, and the ecosystem curling and coiling like a living, breathing character.
I listened to the audio version and read it in print too, and both were magic. I loved seeing VanderMeer’s prose in print so I could take my time and enjoy the best passages, but the audio version really added something special to my initial experience. Bahni Turpin did such an amazing job on the narration, and I can still hear her performance of Borne’s voice in my mind when I ask myself questions. “WHY IS THIS BOOK SOOOO FUUUUN, RACHEL?”