Author: B. Catling
Finished on: 10 February 2020
Where did I get this book: Lent to me
Let’s face it, any book that opens with a man making a bow and arrow out of the corpse of his dead girlfriend is going to be alright by me. Delicious.
Once the Bowman’s unorthodox craft project is complete, he sets off on a journey into the heart of a giant, sinister forest that wipes people’s minds and memories, letting the sentient arrows he shoots from the corpse-bow guide his way.
And from there, it starts getting weird.
From robots bringing up and home-schooling a child in a cellar, to a highly-sexed cyclops enjoying masked orgies during a carnival, this is a book that luxuriates in the bizarre. But, at its heart, it is all about what it means to be human.
Nebsuel is a healer who makes a couple of brief appearances in the story. Catling describes him at one point: ‘His true ambition was to isolate the gum that joins flesh to mind and mind to spirit.’ And this gets to the heart of the matter; Nebsuel and his creator have this in common.
The flesh of the body is a tool, literally so in the case of the Bowman’s deceased lady friend, and the whole story is preoccupied with the relationship between this tool, and the mind and spirit that inhabit it.
There is exploration of family and whether you are defined by the generations that have come before; a lot on the reproduction of people in images, whether and how the true nature of something can be duplicated or forged; what it means to belong to a religion, race, gender, nationality and even species; even some moving stuff on the impact of finding true love… Catling does not shy away from big questions on what makes us human.
He doesn’t patronise us with easy answers, though. There’s just plenty of food for thought and some fascinatingly different perspectives on the matter.
One of the book’s main protagonists is Raymond Roussel, named only as ‘the Frenchman’ here, who famously wrote his Impressions of Africa in 1910 without ever visiting the continent. Catling is following in this tradition with the great, mysterious forest-world of the Vorrh, the domain of the imagination rather than anything to be found in reality, and treads a fine line between critiquing the white saviour-Eurocentric view of the world and participating in it.
Another character drawn from reality is Edward Muybridge, the pioneering photographer, described as: ‘a camera without an aperture.’ It’s not just a question of the interplay between body, mind and soul that is under the lens, it’s also the extent to which the observation of this brings it meaning. If a tree falls in a forest, and all that.
The Vorrh isn’t as esoteric as it might sound, though. Yes, there are sections where we wander into some pretty dense undergrowth, but there are also plenty of nice clear paths to keep us on track and engaged on our way through.
This is a deeply weird and highly original journey into the dark heart of what makes us human. With the added bonus of detailed instructions in how to construct your own weaponry using the bodies of your deceased loved ones.