On one level, this is a brilliant work of speculative fiction, describing a dystopian world (or worlds--we're never sure) ravaged by climate change and the unchecked development of biotechnology. Rachel, the narrator, recalls her childhood, most of which she spent as a refugee after her island home succumbed to rising seas. Somehow—she can't remember how—she loses her parents and ends up in a poisoned, devastated city where she has to eke out a living as a scavenger.
You have to employ a willing suspension of disbelief. The most destructive of the biotech is Mord, a building-sized, flying bear who tyrannizes the city. The title character is a talking, shape-shifting, self-reflective, hilarious squid-like creature. They work because of VanderMeer's skill at world building and his humorous touch.
On another level, the book is an insightful examination of the motives that build and break relationships: love, trust, jealousy, betrayal, and forgiveness. The emotional center is the relationship between Rachel and Borne. Rachel salvages Borne, finding him matted in Mord’s fur and hiding him under her shirt, where he "beat against [her] chest like a second heart.”
Rachel raises Borne, experiencing many of the typical joys and fears of parenting as well as deep uncertainty about Borne’s nature. Their relationship turns into something else, something I can’t quite define, something like friendship, but deeper. When, despite her lessons (or maybe because of them), Borne becomes something other than what she wants, her heart is broken. Prepare yourself to be hard hit emotionally; I cried more than once.
I found Rachel's relationship with her partner, Wick, to be less compelling. He is not a likable character, but this isn’t a fault of the writing: Rachel herself often paints him in a less-than-flattering light. Wick’s explanation at the end for much of his behavior—including his jealousy of Borne and betrayal of Rachel—left me cold. I think that's one of VanderMeer's points: expecting people to be as we want them to be is futile.
On yet another level, the work is a meditation on the questions that we all want answers to: why are we here? Is each of us unique, and does that mean we are alone? What is our purpose? Do we even have a purpose? What does it mean to be a person, and is that synonymous with being human? Is there sentient life that isn’t human? Why do people commit evil? What becomes of us if we knowingly commit heinous acts just to survive? Where do we go when we die? Much of the emotional resonance comes as Borne grapples with these questions with a child-like simplicity and struggles to be good despite irrefutable evidence of what he is.
How he answers at least some of these questions and finds peace … wow. So poignant. Buy this book now and find out for yourself.