Reviews > Published on May 5th, 2015

Bookshots: 'The Vorrh' by Brian Catling

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


The Vorrh

Who wrote it:

Brian Catling is an English visual artist and performer who tours his work internationally. 

Catling has written a complicated tale that invokes a complicated response in its readers. But there's no doubt that a real meal can be found here for the curious mind to chew over.

Plot in a Box: 

A warrior named Tsungali is ordered to hunt down former English soldier, Peter Williams. This will be difficult because Williams is attempting to become the first human to cross the Vorrh, a massive, magical jungle in the heart of Africa.

Invent a new title for this book:

Shadow of a Darkness

Read this if you like:

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, the work of Jeff VanderMeer or Paolo Bacigalupi

Meet the book's lead(s):

The quiet warrior Tsungali, soldier-turned-native Williams, and Ishmael, a Cyclops.

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

Honestly, I have no idea. I’m not at all certain whether this novel could be adequately translated to film.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

Perhaps not in the Vorrh itself, but the busy, cobbled streets of Essenwald on its outskirts sound like someplace I'd at least like to visit.

What was your favorite sentence?

For so it is among those who shed lives every few years: They keep their deflated interior causeways, hold them running parallel with their current useable ones; ghost arteries, sleeping shrunken next to those that pump life.

The Verdict:

The Vorrh is an extremely ambitious book, and one that has garnered a lot attention for its complexity and effortless ability to bend genre labels. Not quite fantasy or mainstream literary fiction, it hovers nebulously somewhere in its own orbit. Catling uses his ample page space to explore a diverse array of themes concerning magic, myth, colonialism, and human nature, with real historical figures and events sprinkled judiciously throughout.

Imagine the Vorrh as a massive, primordial forest that predates the birth of humanity. No one has ever penetrated its core, and civilization comes to an abrupt halt at its shadow. What could be more intriguing than a peek at what lurks inside? The forest is an alien life— a glimpse at a reality where mankind takes a backseat to greater forces. There are a lot of characters in the The Vorrh, but it may be the forest itself that truly dominates as Catling’s most imaginative and vivid creation (although the opening scene of Tsungali making a bow out of his former lover's dead body will definitely stick with me).

There are times when the writing gets a bit carried away with itself. Prepare for a fair amount of this:

The black bread and yellow butter had seemed to stare from its plate with mocking intensity, the fruit pulsing and warping into obscene ducts and ventricles.

That’s just a description of breakfast. Sometimes the prose is beautiful, sometimes it’s dense and exhausting. Chapters tend to fluctuate between voices, moving from more matter-of-fact narration to strange and dreamlike fugues.

Between all of the quixotic imagery and high-mindedness, I find myself feeling rather conflicted about The Vorrh. I’m not certain whether to appreciate its originality, or wish that the journey to its center had been less labyrinthine. Inevitably, the most accurate answer is probably both; Catling has written a complicated tale that invokes a complicated response in its readers. But there's no doubt that a real meal can be found here for the curious mind to chew over.

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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