Brian Catling’s The Vorrh is a very beautifully written book, with the most unforgettable first chapter I’ve read in years.
There are a number of principle characters following multiple separate plots, but all have been touched, changed, by The Vorrh; a huge, primeval African forest, to all intents and purposes the first forest, Eden.
The Vorrh itself is an actor, sucking dry of memories the minds of those who enter. The city and fragile lumber economy that feeds off its edges has the suitably misplaced grandeur of a colonial settlement but within it Catling, playing fast and loose with the reality of the supernatural, gives us a book that is by turns dark, brutal and tender, from Ishmael and the robots in the cellar of a mysterious old house or the zombie workgang and their scottish taskmaster on whom all wealth depends, to Tsungali, an assassin that has to kill a man who carries a malevolent magical bow. In between we learn of dark experiments on stillborn babies, cannibals that may once have been angels and a take on the life of Eadweard Muybridge, the English pioneering photographer, suggesting his experiments were more related to capturing souls than bodies with his photographic and other experiments.
I’ll say little more about it, as the rather staid characterisation takes a back seat to the dark, fantastical events the characters go through, and this should be discovered for oneself. I am still trying to piece together the end sequence and the extent to which the stories in the book resolve together (though if it is the first of a trilogy I’m intrigued to see how it could progress). I suspect the resolution is cleverer than I, but I always enjoy a less than obvious ending, knowing that the author has made it so for a reason and that reason is for me to figure out. Though the themes themselves are apparent – memory and forgetting – their weft does not bend easily to scrutiny. The passage of time might have been another theme, given the disparate points in history in which some of these stories takes place, but little was made of it.
It’s a fiercely imaginative book, and, similar to Pynchon and Mantel, has passages of prose to delight on every page. I’ll close with this example, that, to someone who’s never had their face rebuilt by an amateur to add an eye and set a nose (don’t ask), gives a nonetheless exquisite description of the pain that follows the ascent from an opiated delirium. It succeeds because of the blending of different textures, sharp and soft, aggravating and dull, a feeling turned visual, brittle and ultimately agonising:
“Somewhere in the beige, vague world outside of his sleep there was singing. His mouth was full of clay and dry holly leaves; he was aware of a dull throbbing and itching between himself and the melody. He tried to speak and the itching turned to lines of glittering tinsel: shimmering pain. Ivy? No! Scarabs! Running under his skin. Encrusted and fast. Glass decorations.”
(The featured image is courtesy of Richard Davis.)