I may be the worst possible person to review Mishell Baker’s Borderline. Any hope of objectivity vanished the instant I heard there was a novel whose protagonist, like me, is a bi crip with Borderline Personality Disorder. I’ve dedicated myself to carving out a space for myself and others like me in my writing, but I never would’ve dreamt that this particular representation already existed, published by Simon & Schuster and recommended by NPR. I might also be one of the best possible people to review Borderline, because I understand what’s at stake in this representation.
As the possible fulfillment of my undreamt literary dreams, Borderline also tripped my “too good to be true” alarm. Sure, it was about someone with BPD, but so are the self-help books that represent Borderline people as time bombs of abuse. Maybe this was nothing, just our turn to be the gritty element to make the fairy book more tragically appealing to a neurotypical reader.
But when I did my research, it continued to check out. Not only is Mishell Baker Borderline herself, but she also wrote a guest post for Uncanny Magazine about how BPD could be useful to a fantasy protagonist and even in real life. So Borderline passed my background check. Now I knew I really had to read it.
Millie Roper, the protagonist and narrator, immediately drew me in. Borderline opens on the end of her stay at an inpatient psychiatric facility where she’s been living since the suicide attempt that led to her double leg amputation. Her therapist is uneasy when, after six months of refusing medication and avoiding major topics in therapy, Millie decides to leave to join the mysterious Arcadia Project.
The Arcadia Project turns out to be an organization of mentally ill people tasked with managing immigration between the fairy world and ours. Due to the timing of her arrival and her clever, impulsive rule-breaking, Millie quickly discovers the disappearance of a fey noble — a mystery that’s way above her clearance as a newbie, not that that stops her.
Millie’s physical disability also turns out to be an asset in her work. Reconstructive surgery filled her body with iron, which happens to disrupt spellwork, giving Millie distinctive powers and limitations in working with the fey. In addition to its arcane applications, Millie’s physical disability is present as part of her everyday life. Her prosthetic legs, cane, crutches, and wheelchair are aspects of how she navigates the world, and they’re fittingly integrated into the narrative.
Millie is neither a Good Borderline nor a Good Bisexual, which allows her to be a great character. She hits my sweet spot of feeling like an authentic representation while also slapping respectability politics in the face. She’s messy. Her emotions and sometimes her behavior are out of control, she uses sexuality as a coping mechanism, and sometimes she’s solidly in the wrong. She’s a sympathetic character not because she reflects the perfection that straight neurotypicals want to see from us, but because she’s complex and responds to past trauma and current circumstances in believable ways.
Millie’s limitations also come through in her narrative voice. She makes frequent, usually generalized, statements about Borderlines to the reader. While her descriptions are often relatable and the Borderline ways of thinking she describes are common, readers (especially non-Borderline ones) would do well to remember that Millie is not an all-knowing authority, but instead a single Borderline person speaking from her own experience and prone to black-and-white thinking.
While Millie is my favorite part of Borderline, its main limitations are a result of her narrow perspective. Borderline has a large cast, many of whom are live-in employees of the Arcadia Project, and first-person narration by a character who knows very little about her coworkers makes some of them feel one-dimensional. I struggled slightly to keep them straight on my first read through.
Borderline‘s plot kept me reading, and its fairy lore is interesting, but most of all, Millie is so compelling a character that I’d gladly read about her adventures in any plot and setting.
Borderline lived up to my wildly high hopes, and I’m grateful its world continues in its sequel, Phantom Pains, and in the final installment in the Arcadia Project trilogy, Imposter Syndrome, in which I’m currently delighting. Millie may disrupt fey magic, but she’s got me enchanted.
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