I’m Not Smart Enough to Understand this Book: A Review of Brian Catling’s The Vorrh

I had been eyeing the book for months. Despite being published back in 2015 it stubbornly refused to leave the bestseller table in my local bookshop. I did not buy it – I rarely buy books, I read so many of them that buying them all would turn my house into a no go area within weeks – but when my library acquired a copy I was the first to borrow it.

All seemed well, at least in theory. The Vorrh takes place in an enchanted forest, an environment that fascinates me to the point that I once penned an unpublished novel set in one. It came with lurid praise from some of my favourite cultural behemoths. If Philip Pullman, Tom Waits and Terry Gilliam loved it, and Alan Moore sounds positively lyrical in his introduction to my edition, what could possibly go wrong?

A lot, it turned out. I finished the book two days ago and am still feeling a bit peeved. Sure, some parts I liked. The novel has crazy characters, wacky storylines, mindblowing descriptions of the forest and its adjoining city. Yet I can’t help feeling underwhelmed. If this is supposed to be the book that will change the fantasy genre forever, as Moore claims, I’m not sure I’m that interested.

The main issue is that I feel as if I did not “get” this book. I guess this is the danger that comes with recommendations from people you admire. I would love to love this book because Moore keeps telling me I should but the fact that I don’t makes me feel like I missed something. For the life of me, I couldn’t offer you a synopsis of the plot. Or even a basic idea of what the book is about. I feel like I’ve been on an acid trip, and given that I’m teetotal, it was not a good experience.

When I searched the internet for reviews it seems I’m not alone in feeling this way. Professional critics appear to like the book but ordinary readers like me generally don’t. Many readers voice complaints similar to mine: is Moore seeing something we are missing because we are not geniuses? Or does the book lack the substance to match its impressive style?

I probably came to this book with the wrong expectations anyway. My library put the book in the fantasy section but if you’re expecting a Tolkien-like story you will be disappointed. There is magic but there are no wizards. There is a quest but its goal remains obscure. There is no ring or other fetish object to focus on. Some people may like this meandering style. As for me, I’m left with one big question: what on earth was the point of it all?

I don’t mind books being difficult. One of the reasons I read is to be challenged. But The Vorrh left me feeling frustrated rather than elated. I can’t decide whether I’m just not smart enough to enjoy this brilliant book, or whether there’s nothing wrong with my smartness and the book really is just not that brilliant. Mind you, I’m not saying it’s bad. I enjoyed parts of it. Enough to write a review, at least. But I wouldn’t recommend it to others, which tells you all you need to know.

I’ve been thinking of other authors whose work I could compare this novel to. Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard were some names that came to mind, with perhaps a bit of Blaise Cendrars thrown in. None of these authors write easy books, which is why I love them. But the difference is that, even if I may not understand everything they write, they always leave me with plenty to think about. With The Vorrh, there’s nothing, apart from a sense of frustration. This, of course, does not mean that Moore is wrong, Catling a bad writer, or The Vorrh a bad book. It just means this book is really not for me.

Image David Riaño Cortés via Pexels

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