Book review: Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

It’s been a while since I treated myself to a good book, so I was on the lookout for something a little off-the-cuff. I’d read the first part of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and though I enjoyed it, I don’t think I liked it enough to pick up the next two.  (Though, that probably says more about my attention span than the writer’s talent).

In many ways, Borne was very similar to Annihilation: set in an unspecified land at some unspecified point in the future, it follows a female protagonist and her partner trying to survive in what’s left of the world following untempered experimentation in biotechnology. What doesn’t help is that the Company responsible for the disaster seems to have gotten away with it (maybe everyone was too preoccupied with staying alive to bring about some sort of legal case), and are still developing some weird and less-than-wonderful creatures to inflict upon the surviving populace. Their biggest success (and I do mean biggest) is Mord, a bear-like creature several storeys high who just happens to be able to fly.


Or he was their biggest success until Rachel, our protagonist, discovers a tiny plant-like creature sticking to his fur. She removes it, takes it home, calls it Borne, and watches it grow into a sentient being with limitless shape-shifting abilities and a hunger for learning. All seems to be going well, aside from her partner’s suspicions, until she notices that the lizards, insects and people around their camp are disappearing, and that Borne is getting larger.

What’s worse is that he doesn’t seem to excrete…

Yep, it’s that weird, and it’s a real treat of a book. The setting is painstakingly crafted to give a despairing sense of place, and the story cracks along at a reasonable pace, though sometimes I did find it got a little slow. This is undoubtedly aiming at the literary end of the dystopia/sci-fi market, so it does focus a lot on the characterisation, mostly Rachel’s. The whole story is told through introspective memories with a lot of detail wrought around her conflicted feelings for Borne and her partner, Wick.

Rachel has fairly deadpan way of relating her life, even when she’s telling you about the time she was attacked and tortured by a gang of mutated children who got into her camp. In some ways that makes her hard to relate to, and as she often goes off into a flowery exposition, this often breaks up the pace of the story. Still, that is a style thing and you either like it or you don’t. For the most part, I liked it; the prose is flowing and poetic, with very few points that made you think ‘Mmm, not sure about that…’ I don’t think a single word was misplaced, which is a testament to the attention to detail the author puts into his work. (I thought the same thing when I was reading Annihilation). There are very few other characters who get a look in; the book is very much about Rachel, Wick and Borne – Borne’s naive innocence to his very nature providing some much needed light relief in what would otherwise be a very dark read.

How would I describe the ending? It was a gradual build up; there was no great rush towards the conclusion, which was good, because that would have spoiled it. I’m not going to say any more about it, other than it was in keeping with the rest of the book and worked well enough for me.

Overall, an enjoyable read. It was hard going in places, but this is literary fiction; some work on the part of the reader is to be expected.

I’m going to give it a respectable six out of ten.