“Borne,” the latest novel from New Weird author Jeff VanderMeer, is a story of loving self-sacrifice, hallucinatory beauty and poisonous trust. Much as with his acclaimed Southern Reach Trilogy, “Borne” transpires in the throes of a drawn-out ecocatastrophe. A nameless city inhabited by scavengers and the remnants of failed bioengineering experiments is dominated by a corporation known simply as the Company. The strange hero in this chaotic world is Borne, an enigmatic chimera raised by the narrator, Rachel.
When Rachel first rescues baby Borne from his precarious nest in the fur of a giant bear named Mord, he resembles an exotic houseplant. Soon, he learns to speak, ask unanswerable questions and make provocative yet seemingly innocent statements — as children do.
But Rachel’s partner, Wick, is skeptical of Borne’s innocence. He calls Borne a weapon. Puzzling increases in Borne’s knowledge and his steady physical growth, tied with a sudden drop in the local population of lizards, spiders and soon of every living thing besides themselves, force Rachel to realize that Wick may be right.
VanderMeer’s undeniable skill as a writer keeps what could be an unwieldy blur of a plot from devolving into grim melodrama or atmospheric nihilism. His straightforward narration draws us through Rachel’s unpredictable exploits, and chapters with headings such as “What I Found in Borne’s Apartment” and “Who We Met on the Desolate Plain” deliver exactly what they promise while serving up surprise after surprise.
Rachel, a brown-skinned, kinky-haired refugee woman, will also satisfy readers eager to see marginalized figures move to the center of an adventure novel. And there’s enough allusiveness in this story to satisfy a whole conference of literary critics (e.g. Wick’s name derives from an Old English word for “life” and Mord’s from words relating to “biting” and “death”). Ultimately, though, these heady delights only add to the engrossing richness of “Borne.” The main attraction is a tale of mothers and monsters — and of how we make each other with our love.
Nisi Shawl’s new novel is “Everfair.”
By Jeff VanderMeer
MCD/FSG. 323 pp. $26