Adventurers, archaeologists and adherents alike have long sought—only to be stymied in their search for—the site of the Garden of Eden, that portion of paradise where many people believe humanity took root. In his phenomenal first novel, the poet, painter, and performance artist Brian Catling posited that it might at last be located in the Vorrh, a vast (albeit fictional) forest in the heart of Africa. In the ambitious if middling middle volume of what in 2017 turned out to be a trilogy, he expanded the scope of his suggestive story substantially, to take in characters from Bedlam in London, the colonial compound of Essenwald and a retirement home in Heidelberg: a litany of lost souls that would only be found, finally, in or in relation to the good woodland.
The Cloven closes the book on those disconsolate characters at the same time as advancing the overarching narrative of Catling’s exceptionally weird series, which can be seen in sum as a sinister subversion of the Christian tale of creation. Adam and Eve, it has it, were never meant to be anything more than minders in the Garden of Eden—they simply grew too big for their boots when they tasted of the forbidden fruit. The knowledge it contained was meant for the trees, you see, and they, as much more multifarious beings than we mere people can see, have had a chip on their sturdy shoulders ever since. Now, though… now the time has come for them to take what’s theirs, and I dare say it won’t end well if we stand in their way.
Picking up precisely where The Erstwhile left off, The Cloven does little to reintroduce returning readers to its alien alternate history—to the extent that it seems like the second half of said sequel rather than the third volume of The Vorrh proper—and nearly nothing to encourage newcomers. I’d endeavour to do better, but Catling crams so many convolutions into this overcooked conclusion that it wouldn’t be worth your time or mine.
The vastness is the first thing to misunderstand. There is no space in the mind to hold it, either as a distant dark mass seen from above or in the endless labyrinthine folds of its interior. All become lost in those overlapping gaps that sometimes appear to be pathways between the trees. The vertical trunks confront and shutter all distance and any sense of volume. […] But all these majestic flowerings were nothing compared to what occurred below.
Suffice it to say there are many plates still spinning following the artisanal execution that ended The Erstwhile, not least with respect to the execution itself. Turns out the sex-crazed cyclops Ishmael didn’t die in that macabre mechanical contraption after all: he’s alive and, if not necessarily well, then well enough to return to the forest from which he mysteriously emerged earlier. Meanwhile, the fast friends he so blithely betrayed during his time in Essenwald have gone their separate ways. Ghertrude Tulp is at her wit’s end following the loss of her daughter, whilst Cyrena Lohr rekindles her relationship with Eugene Marais, a real-life South African naturalist whose suicide by shotgun acts as The Cloven’s shocking prologue.
There’s also Nicolas and Hector, the aforementioned residents of London’s most infamous insane asylum and the Heidelberg retirement home respectively. Nicolas, aka Patient 126, knows, somehow, that “there is something not right. Something malignant in the great forest,” and it seems he does want to warn the human race that the time of the trees is nearly here; Hector Schumann, on the other hand, has his own affairs to attend to, haunted as he has been by awful noises emanating from the apparently empty apartment under his own.
Walled off as the latter narrative is, it—and the strange and similarly self-contained story of Eugene Marais along with it—is among The Cloven’s most successful sections, in part because it doesn’t have a great deal to do with the novel’s exhaustingly overcomplicated plot, and in part because Catling, like Cyrena’s sometime tutor, has an endlessly evocative way with words. “The way [he] told the tale and shivered the questions of consciousness was an absolute delight. The resounding meanings stirred deep and significant thoughts in her,” as these rare moments of The Cloven did in me.
Regrettably, they are the exception rather than the rule. By and large, “all the charm of the previous invasion”—by which I mean Catling’s first inscrutable incursion into the Vorrh—“had been replaced by this writhing infestation of carrion-dipped insistence.” The Cloven is genuinely horrifying at points, but more often gratuitously gruesome; and its mass of characters is just that: an undifferentiated thicket of tissue that no reader will be able to relate to. Perhaps more positively, its portrayal of the secret life of plants remains remarkable, yet the revelation of their agenda hardly clarifies their actions and agents in the moment—and these are, it bears repeating, the very last moments of this series. If not now, then when?
And after all that—after all the to-ing and fro-ing here and in The Erstwhile to retcon The Vorhh into the beginning of a tiresome trilogy rather than allowing it to simply stand a superlative work of standalone speculative fiction—it ends… abysmally. It’s just over, all of a sudden. Would that it had been two books sooner. The Cloven is as inaccessible a novel as I’ve ever read, and although Catling’s prose still has its power, and poise, here his words—however wonderful—are wasted.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.