Well, where to start really. They say that the line between genius and madness is a fine one and you get the sense that novelist Brian Catling is teetering on the edge of both throughout the ultra ambitious The Vorrh.
The Vorrh is set in deepest Africa, its name taken from the legendary African forest from Raymond Rousselâ€™s Impressions of Africa. The forest features heavily in the story as we are led through a journey involving the cyclops Ishmael, a mysterious bowman, the hunter Tsungali, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and hints at the origins of man. What is gathered before us is an astonishing outpouring of imagination which is hard to quantify into a coherent synopsis.
The opening to The Vorrh is dense, lots of information being thrown at the reader as we are led dizzyingly past living bows carved from the dead, the automaton led schooling of the young Ishmael in the secrecy of 4 Kuhler Brunnen, the background to Tsungali and the quarry he must track, and forays into the bizarre life and photography of Muybridge. The temptation for the casual reader is initially to admit defeat and reach for another tome from the bookshelf but you would be advised against this. Slowly things come together, disjointedly at first as your mind tries to comprehend the smorgasbord of stories playing out before it, and then, little by little, everything gels, pulling together like some fiendishly intricate puzzle to leave you with a feeling of wonderment at what you have just read come the end.
The Vorrh is as much a piece of art as it is a story. Themes of sex, death, society, religion, magic and much more are explored head on and without hesitation. You suspect that Catling was using his writing to explore multiple concepts within his head thus giving us one of the most unique and imaginative books I have ever read. The language is beautiful at times and the sheer imagery throughout will both delight and repulse you in equal measure. However, whilst the vision and imagery are superb, the characters are peculiar and potentially off-putting to some. There is no central hero to cheer, not that we require one here, and each character is flawed to the extreme with little to endear you to them. The female characters get the roughest deal from this and are not given the same level of authority as their male counterparts, often reduced to little more than objects of sexual gratification. Whilst maybe a reflection of conceived notions in 19th century Europe and Africa, it does take a slight shine off an otherwise stunning book.
Overall, The Vorrh is visually breathtaking, truly unique and will likely have you eagerly devouring huge chunks at a time of its nigh on 500 pages. As the first part of a planned trilogy, it satisfyingly wraps up events within this volume whilst leaving enough mystery for Catling to play with going forward. The renowned Alan Moore provides a foreword in which he describes this as a masterpiece and, you know what, he might not be too far wrong.