Book Quote:

“Though he’d since tried to notice as little as possible that could lead to arrests, paperwork or acclaim, it was no use. He saw more than ever. He intercepted buds on Halverstick, then caught a smuggler on Judson Lake and yet another in downtown Sumas. And the increased patrols didn’t seem to discourage the illegals he kept finding in fields and forests or sardined into muffler-dragging vans [. . . ] Two Iranians lectured him in broken English about the Bill of Rights, followed by an indignant Sri Lankan couple who scolded him for ruining their honeymoon. Brandon stepped into the woods to pee later that night and nine Venezuelans surrendered.”

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (NOV 13, 2009)

In Jim Lynch’s critically-acclaimed first novel, The Highest Tide, Miles, a thirteen-year old boy with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, discovers a giant squid on the shores of Puget Sound as it gasps its last breath. What follows is a miracle of nature as oceanic oddities and coincidences seem drawn to the teenage boy. Now, with his second novel, Border Songs, also set in the Pacific Northwest but inland, Lynch has created another story concerned as much with unexplained coincidences and natural beauty as it is with its quirky characters.  Like Miles, central character Brandon becomes the unwitting magnet for publicity, used by those in power for their own agenda. As a newly trained border agent, Brandon stumbles onto one illegal activity after another, making huge arrests that suggest to others that a broader conspiracy must be at work. Brandon knows otherwise. He uncovers these border crimes by serendipity since his real attention has been directed toward counting the number of bird species or constructing a sculpture of natural materials – twigs, leaves, stones, whatever is at hand.

The son of a failing dairyman and a woman struggling with early Alzheimer’s disease, Brandon is strange even by the standards of his off-beat neighbors living in the sparsely populated and barely defined border between the United States and Canada. He is a hulking, towering, bumbling man who suffers from severe dyslexia, both visually and orally, and when excited, he becomes physically ill. He harbors a boyish innocence and awkwardness that makes him endearing, although his acquaintances rarely see him that way:

“People talked about Brandon the way they discussed earthquakes, eclipses and other phenomena. His size, his ‘art,’ and the bizarre things he said and did always generated chatter about Super Freak or Big Bird or whatever they were calling him at the time.”

But the locals themselves are hardly mainstream. Madeline, with whom Brandon is infatuated, is haunted by the freak accident death of her mother, the type-A condescension of her sister, and a marijuana and drinking habit that leaves her vulnerable. Her father Wayne, a former professor suffering from multiple sclerosis (and using marijuana for medicinal reasons, legal on his Canadian side of the border) tries to duplicate inventions such as Edison’s light bulb and Franklin’s kite flying discovery of electricity from scratch. Brandon’s father Norm seems to know nothing about keeping a healthy herd of dairy cows and would rather be in his barn working on his gleaming, half-finished boat. Fellow border agent and single mother Dionne is desperate for sex. And Sophie, the mysterious masseuse and supposed author, snaps photographs of them all, seemingly everywhere. These characters are ordinary compared to the intensely intuitive Brandon, a man who rarely understands the implication of his discoveries until after his fellow agents arrive. If Brandon had his way, he would be alone with nature, the bird song as his music and plant debris as his visual art.

The two roads that run parallel to each other, one American (Boundary Road) and one Canadian (Zero Avenue), flank the ditch, “one of the few landmarks along the nearly invisible boundary that cleared the Cascades and fell west through lush hills that blurred the line no matter how aggressively it was chainsawed and weed-whacked.” This ditch divides not only countries but also neighbors and politics. The surrounding farmland and woods harbor unusual birds: eagles “fixed to limbs and stoic as gargoyles,” “the murderous screen of a barn owl,” Caspian terns “held together by sound and faith,” and barn swallows with voices “lost in a mad, simultaneous flutter of wings.” All this conjures up a setting that is flush with wildlife but desolate for humans. The characters seems as isolated as pioneers, forgotten on the frontier by their more urban counterparts until the media gets whiff of a possible frontline for the war on terrorism and drugs. Only then are they deemed worthy of attention. Brandon, once the area’s pariah, has become a hero.

Lynch’s stunning prose creates the “border song” of the novel’s geography, an operatic ode to the land and its inhabitants. Although a quiet story of intuition and odd heroics, the emotions in it resonate powerfully, creating a scrapbook for the reader that perhaps is not all that different from what Sophie creates as she documents Brandon’s genius.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 62 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; First Edition edition (June 16, 2009)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Highest Tide


November 13, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Canada, Contemporary, Literary, US Northwest

One Response

  1. jim lynch - June 23, 2010

    Dear Debbie,
    Belated thanks for reviewing Border Songs. I appreciate your time and your words. It’s coming out in paperback on July 13. It was picked as among the best books of 2009 by The Washington Post, Toronto Star and others. Hoping to get it in the hands of more people who’ll enjoy it soon. And I’m linking MostlyFiction to my website.
    Best wishes
    Jim Lynch

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