Treading the Line Between Sanity, Magic, and Reality – A Review of Borderline by Mishell Baker

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In the Philippines, we grow up hearing tales of the supernatural – and not in the same way as our Western counterparts. Oh, to be sure, we grow up hearing all the same fairytales and watching all the same Disney movies as Western children do, but alongside those stories, we hear stories of another sort. These are the stories we hear from our grandparents (if we are lucky enough to have them nearby), or from our nannies or other members of the household help (for those who are lucky to have them). Sometimes we hear them from our aunts or uncles, or from playmates and classmates who, in their turn, heard them from other people in their lives. It is from these stories that we learn to be cautious of balete trees (genus Ficus), and to say “Tabi-tabi po” (translated: “Please step aside”) when passing by a termite mound or crossing a grassy field. It is from these stories that we learn to turn our shirts inside-out if we get lost, and to walk faster if we hear a crying baby while out and about alone at night. Incidentally, these beliefs do not in any way conflict with the prevailing Christian practice in the country; instead, they cohabit quite comfortably, side-by-side, in the Filipino mindset.

Things are different in the West. If one professes a belief in, say, fairies beyond a certain age, one is bound to be considered “crazy”, with subsequent reactions depending upon whether or not that “craziness” is viewed with tolerable fondness or otherwise. This is not to say that belief in the supernatural is considered acceptable by all people in the Philippines, but the acceptability of such beliefs depends more upon class and social status (i.e. such beliefs are considered more “prevalent” in people who are from more rural areas and/or belong to a lower socio-economic class, but supposedly less so in the urbanised, Western-thinking upper class) than on a person’s mental state. In the Philippines, belief in the supernatural is considered a symptom of inadequate education and/or poor socio-economic standing; in the West, it is generally considered a reflection of a person’s mental state.

One of the things that makes Mishell Baker’s Borderline so fascinating is the play between mental states and the supernatural. It begins with the main character, Millicent “Millie” Roper, being invited by one Caryl Vallo to join the mysterious Arcadia Project. However, Millie isn’t what most people would consider “normal”: after all, Caryl meets her at the Leishman Psychiatric Center, where Millie has been living for the last six months because of her attempted suicide – an attempt that might have left Millie with her life, but without both her legs. Millie also has borderline personality disorder, or BPD: a mental illness that is difficult to manage and difficult to live with. Despite all of this, though, Caryl convinces Millie that she should at least try to work with the Arcadia Project, and Millie decides to give it a shot. As it turns out, however, the Arcadia Project is not quite what it seems to be, and Millie walks right into a situation that might shatter a fragile peace, and begin an otherworldly war.

One of the things that makes this novel stand out from the many other urban fantasy novels is the way Baker has chosen to characterise Millie, and many of the other characters involved in the Arcadia Project. Keeping the supernatural a secret from the rest of the mundane world is practically a trope of urban fantasy, but the main characters of those books can still function in the mundane world without being made into pariahs for their belief in the supernatural. These characters, therefore, never have to fear being called “crazy” as long as their secrets remain secret; any difficulties they encounter tend to come from putting themselves between the mundane and supernatural worlds in the name of that secrecy.

Millie, however, is different. Her BPD means that living a normal life is difficult, as she points out throughout the novel. Take this excerpt, for example:

One of the fun bits about BPD is a phenomenon shrinks like to call “splitting.” When under stress, Borderlines forgets the existence of gray. Life is a beautiful miracle, or a cesspool of despair. The film you’re making is a Best Picture candidate, or it’s garbage. People are either saints, or they’re scheming to destroy you.

Or this:

When you’re Borderline and want to survive, you learn to shrink from guilt, because it can spiral out of control and leave you staring down a bottomless void. People throw around the term “self-loathing” without really knowing what it means. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Or this:

Borderlines are not good at patiently earning things; we tend to take “no” as a personal insult and feel driven to turn it into a “yes” on the spot.

There are several more of these explanations about what it is like to live with BPD, and it is made quite clear to the reader that even Millie herself has a hard time managing it. And yet, despite this, when she is thrown headlong into an assignment for the Arcadia Project, with very little explanation about what is going on and what she can and cannot do, she still manages to handle the situation with some aplomb. A part of it can be attributed to BPD:

But that’s a weird side effect of BPD; your perfection of truth shifts so often in the normal course of daily life that crazy talk doesn’t automatically trigger your bullshit reflex.

This ability to keep her “bullshit reflex” from going off proves crucial to Millie’s ability to think through some otherwise absurd situations – and is, therefore, crucial to being able to work in the Arcadia Project at all:

I stared at the shimmering swirls on the paper; they moved as though they were alive. I’d misplaced the speech center of my brain again. When I found it, I said a little drunkenly, “What kind of glasses are these?”

“It’s like an advanced version of the fairy ointment from the stories,” he said. “One side of the lens shows you what kind of magic a thing has; the other side shows you things as they really are.”

I waited for my rational mind to put up a fight, but it rolled over and showed its belly.

This characterisation stands in direct contrast to the way other urban fantasy protagonists are portrayed, many of whom are either aware from childhood that the supernatural exists (and why it needs to be kept secret), or learn about it but manage to accept its existence with an admirable (and in some cases slightly unrealistic) calm. Millie’s BPD is far from glamorous, and Baker does not ever once portray it as such, but it does offer a plausible explanation as to why she can so readily roll with the punches thrown at her worldview throughout the novel.

Another thing about the way Millie has been characterised is that she does not use her mental illness as an excuse when she’s behaved poorly. While she often acknowledges that her BPD can and often does lead her to do and say very ill-considered things, she does not use it to excuse any poor behaviour on her part. Though she has a hard time apologising (partly because of who she is, and partly because of her BPD), she does acknowledge it when she realises that she has done something wrong (even if it takes her a while to do so), and tries her best to make amends. I personally find this very refreshing, having had to deal with a former friend who used her own mental issues (not BPD, as far as I know) to excuse hurtful behaviour, and I am glad Baker has been careful to depict this particular line between what the mentally ill do because they’re sick, and what they do because they are who they are.

What makes Millie stand out even more as a character and narrator is the world she inhabits, and the story that plays out. Like many urban fantasy worlds, there is nothing significantly different between the reader’s reality and the reality in the book, save for the addition of supernatural elements; the plot is also quite similar to other plots in other urban fantasy novels. This means, therefore, that Borderline is similar to many other urban fantasy novels out there. However, that works to the advantage of character-building: since the overall set dressing and plot isn’t really all that different from many other novels in the same genre, the reader can focus on reading how the characters grow and develop. This is a novel that is very much driven by its protagonist, after all, and though Baker does bring the setting of Hollywood to life, in all its contrasts, contradictions, and neuroses, the focus remains on Millie, and how she sees the world, what she thinks of it, and how she grows into the character she is at the end of the novel.

Aiding all of this is Baker’s writing. I enjoy characters that have distinctive voices, especially when they are the ones narrating the story, and there is no denying that Millie is definitely one of those characters. Take this excerpt, for example:

At eighteen, I drove two thousand miles west toward the siren call of Hollywood, hoping it would drown out the cruel voice in my head that I thought was my father’s. By the time I found out that the cruel voice in my head was my own, my father was two years dead and I’d already let the voice talk me off the roof of Hendrick Hall. Whoops.

There is a hard-bitten edge to Millie’s narrative voice, and a touch of sarcasm that I find enjoyable to read. To be sure, there are many other urban fantasy protagonists that try to come off just as hard-bitten and sarcastic, but very few of them make it come off as naturally, as believably, as Millie. Again, I attribute this to Baker’s skill as a writer, that she can make a character’s personality come through so well in the written word. Indeed, it makes me wonder if there is an audiobook of this book already out, because I think it would be interesting to actually hear Millie’s story, told in her “own” voice by an expert narrator.

Overall, Borderline is one of those novels that definitely lives up to the hype surrounding it. Millie is an interesting and atypical urban fantasy protagonist, who portrays what it is like to live with disability and mental illness in a way that I think is respectful to those who must deal with such conditions in their own daily lives. Even better, Baker does not glamourise or victimise Millie’s problems, showing instead how they can be both help and hindrance in a world where the supernatural exists, but needs to be kept as secret as possible. I now look forward to reading the next book, which, in my opinion, cannot come soon enough.

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