You can usually tell how much I'm enjoying a book by how long it takes me to read and blog about it. Well, it's been two weeks since my last blog post, which doesn't reflect particularly well on Border Songs, my Random Read for the month of January.
The story focuses on a small community living on the border between the US and Canada, and one resident in particular - Brandon Vanderkool. He's an awkward chap, huge and clumsy but quite childish and innocent, who finds it difficult to express himself without getting tongue-tied. When Brandon gets a job with the US border patrol, everyone is amazed to find he has a natural talent for it. He's so observant he's able to spot little clues that lead him to make some startling arrests, and as the pile of confiscated drugs begins to grow, the border patrol soon find themselves the centre of national attention.
The other main character is Brandon's father, Norm; a dairyman with an elderly herd of cows, a half-built boat that looks more like an impossible dream with each day, and a wife who's in the early stages of Altzheimer's disease. He worries about his wife's health, about his son's strange behaviour and dangerous job, and about his neighbour Sophie, who he is irresistibly yet hopelessly attracted to.
The setting of this unusual book is particularly well portrayed. There's a strange disconnected feeling about the story which comes from its setting - a place that's defined by its in-betweenness. Wholesome farmers live next door to smugglers and drug-runners, Canadians live close enough to their American neighbours that they're able to converse, and often to argue, from the comfort of their front porches, but the unremarkable ditch that runs between them is a line that shouldn't be crossed.
The other thing that the book does brilliantly is characterisation. The book is brimming with interesting personalities, and Brandon in particular really comes to life in the pages. He's something of a savant; innocent and naive, but also strangely astute and blessed with extraordinary flashes of inspiration. He has a particular fascination with birds; long stretches of prose examine this preoccupation with the area's wildlife, and the art that Brandon feels compelled to create is often inspired by birds and their movements.
So why did it take me so long to read Border Songs? I liked it, I admired much of the writing, but somehow I kept finding more important things to be doing than reading it. I think that's mainly down to the plot, which meanders along without much of a sense of purpose. The last book I read was the pacey thriller Wool, and after that, Border Songs couldn't help but fall a little flat.
If you like a slow, thoughtful read with an interesting setting and a bunch of unusual characters then you could do a lot worse than Border Songs. I'm sorry it never quite got under my skin, but I'll still give it three stars.