(2007 / 2015) B. Catling, Coronet, £20, hrdbk, 500pp, ISBN 978-1-473-60661-6
This is a welcome 2015 reprint of a 2007 novel that is a very original, highly literate and deeply affecting fantasy work, refreshingly devoid of dark lords, power-rings, elves and orcs.
Set around and within a mysterious and sinister forest, The Vorrh, that dominates the African heartlands, the interlinked stories feature a highly eclectic selection of real, mythical and in some cases, mechanical characters driven to explore the edges or the heart of the uncharted forest.
The real-life figures include pioneering Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge and surrealist author, Raymond Roussel, (who envisaged the Vorrh forest in his own book, Impressions Of Africa).
Mythology is centrally represented by Ishmael, a lonely Cyclops raised by the unexplained (and later shattered) steampunk mechanical Bakelite robots before he discovers a womanís love he risks forgetting forever on his own journey through the Vorrh, for the forest devours memory. If he finds his way through and gains a second eye, will he see better than before or worse? Will becoming less of a pitiful monster necessarily make him more of a man?
The Vorrh is a primordial dreamscape. No one who enters returns the same as before. Destinies are swapped or abandoned by characters, as their stories converge and pass through one another/ They include a hunter guided by a bow carved from the bones of his dead girlfriend at her own request, though the bow now lives. A cowboy assassin hunts the bowman with a Lee Enfield, but strange figures lurking among the trees protect the archer who follows the path of his own arrows.
There is undiluted horror too, as with the mysterious and sinister observers who do truly terrible things if anyone fails to obey them, as in chopping off a boyís hands and sewing them back on back to front.
The Vorrh may be the border between our World and the Garden of Eden we were exiled from after the fall of Adam & Eve. Many believe that angels lurk there to prevent us rediscovering Eden, but even their memories are devoured by the Vorrh.
It is a haunting, very complex work, and seems to intentionally misdirect the reader in its often claustrophobic words and woods, so we lose our sense of direction and struggle to recall why a detail from a hundred pages back is still significant now. You donít just read your way through the Vorrh, you are actually swallowed and absorbed by it. This is a book that plays strange games with your subconscious. No other book has ever got to me in quite the same way though I felt better for it. Linear narrative and order are impossible to hold on to but you feel the need to push on. There is a density to the work that makes Mervyn Peakeís Gormenghast Trilogy seem like light reading.
On the fringes of the Vorrh, a colonial city called Essenwald takes its wood, while a train cuts a course through the trees too, following a strange track the walking travellers never seem to keep course with. We are fragmenting and dissecting the mysterious, without really learning from it first.
In many ways it is about the need to see and explore. Ishmael is seen as a lonely monster but then seen as a tender lover. He wants another eye to be seen as more human; he finds romance while attending a carnival in disguise. Muybridge wants his cameras to capture instants of time and truth; Many believe his camera can steal souls though it is the Vorrh that truly does. The bowman seeks the heart of the forest; no one finds what they want, at least never in the way they or we might expect.
It is never clear what year the book is set in; much feels Victorian and Edwardian, though the robots give a sense of futurism, and the mythical entities suggest a more ancient era too. The effect distorts the readerís sense of time.
Poetic, deliberately misleading, often unsettling, but compulsive reading after only a few steps. A truly unfilmable work, that is a finely tuned and stretched out surrealist canvas. You will remember bits of it vividly, while other areas will slide around subliminally in your mind. This book affects the reader as much as the reader affects its pages. You emerge wondering what just happened to you while hoping to see the remaining books in the trilogy to learn or forget even more. This one adds a whole new meaning to getting lost in a good book.
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