Book Review: Borderlanders – Gillian Polack

Borderlanders by Gillian Polack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When I was a child, the moonlight from my bedroom window used to shine a pattern on the adjacent wall at night. I would fantasise that it was outlining a portal to another world. Depending on my mood, this portal would lead to a mad scientists’ lair, or a witches castle. In later years I wished for a library.

Gillian Polack’s Borderlanders evokes this sense of magic in the real world: lucid dreaming, Celtic magic, a mysterious library, and portals connected somehow to shadow and light. It’s a curiously slippery tale about three women attending a creative residency—only the house is not as it seems and, perhaps, neither are the women.

Despite the magic, the novel is rooted in reality as we explore the house through the central protagonist who suffers from chronic pain. This is written carefully—the author explains in the acknowledgements that she spoke to many people with chronic illnesses, to make this story as accurate as possible—and we follow the narrator through the numerous conscious adjustment she has to make every day, just to live the semblance of a normal life: ‘Melissa developed a plan so that she could see everything, do everything, and hurt the least possible.’

Melissa’s cutting insights are what powers the story: ‘Illness set up problems with verbal transactions… Once one can’t talk about the everyday pain, it’s hard to talk about other things…’ The backdrop of a hard reality against otherworldly potential.

In general, it’s a pleasure to watch the way each woman tackles her creative endeavour, and to observe the slightly obsessive thought patterns that lace the creative mind, as when one character agonizes how best to stack her books in the unlikely event that they fall from her desk and are damaged in an earthquake.

Lovely yet powerful imagery is used: a certain key made of glass, keeping us in fairy-tale mode. The many rooms in the house remind me of my childhood with Polly Pocket: those dolls barely bigger than a fingernail that were swapped from house to house—some houses even hung on a chain around your neck—and you get a sense that such a thing could be possible here.

The first-person point-of-view is the strongest; in third-person, the three central characters bleed into each other, so it can be unclear who we’re following. At times we feel excluded from a group who have been friends for years (as is actually the case here). Perhaps this bleeded scope is also what makes the characters take magic for granted—the marvel is treated casually, the strangeness left unquestioned, the wonder too often lost. Some of the slang can be jarring (“suckitude”) and certain phrases are overused, which stands out in a vocabulary that’s otherwise fluid and considered.

Borderlands is an enjoyable book that has you thinking beyond yourself, yet paradoxically that’s exactly what you circle back to. It’s the perfect book to read before bed, when your mind is entering that hazy, otherworldly zone; it’s a companion you can slip into, as it slips through you; a compliment to any mind in search of a creative wander.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher; I thank Odyssey Books for introducing me to the world of Borderlanders.



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