Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review of Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation

No, this isn't my husband, our dog and me.
My rating scale for books is based on the lengths to which I'll go in order to avoid putting the book down. The other night I was reading Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 4, 2014) when the dog needed to go out. My husband took him out after negotiating a steep price because I rate Annihilation very high.

You can see why I was riveted from the very first paragraph:
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.
Before I talk about VanderMeer's skillful manipulation of the threat, let me tell you about the expedition, the twelfth sent by the Southern Reach, a clandestine government agency. The mission is simple: to continue the government’s investigation into the mysteries of Area X. While Area X is mysterious, so are the motives behind the Southern Reach's treatment of the expedition sent to explore it. Expedition members are not only forbidden to take cell phones and computers, they don't even have watches or compasses. On their belts hangs an odd measuring device that will glow red to indicate they have 30 minutes to find "a safe place," although they are not told what the device measures. They also carry guns and journals they're to write in without sharing entries with each other.

Members of previous expeditions did not fare well and it's not clear why. Area X exerts a strange influence over people who enter, and they kill themselves or each other or return, like the eleventh expedition, husks of themselves. The current team consists of four unnamed women: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and the biologist, who narrates. The psychologist is the team leader. She puts her team under hypnosis to keep their minds from tricking them as they cross the border, which is invisible to the naked eye. If the psychologist becomes incapacitated, the others are to return to the entry point and wait for an "extraction" whose methodology they don't know.

winter in Area X
Everyone on the team assumes the enigmatic psychologist knows more than the others. From very early on, we see that the biologist narrator isn't divulging everything she knows to the group. She tells us she's not sure what they've been told is the truth. We're unsure how credible and objective a witness she is, although it's impossible not to root for her. It's strange that she insists on calling the uncharted structure that disappears into the ground (mentioned in the first paragraph) a tower, while the others say that of course it's a tunnel. Whatever it is, it's a masterpiece at unnerving the reader.

As unsettling events in Area X mount and take their toll, the biologist becomes even more determined to understand what's going on. I rode a roller coaster of dread and paranoia as she continues her investigations and attempts to account for strange, surrealistic animal behavior and to reconcile physical evidence with what she thinks she knows. As she becomes aware that everything is not what it seems and Area X may not be her only source of danger, she begins interrupting the action to recount her childhood, marriage and career as "the queen of tide pools." These suspensions in the plot serve to heighten tension when action is resumed, but her portrait is as fascinating as her heart-stopping Area X exploration. An only child, she became an expert in the uses of solitude and an observer who melts into her surroundings. Her nature is critical to VanderMeer's brilliant plot.

I was engrossed watching the biologist, whose work is her life, tackle the secrets of the intriguing and dangerous Area X. While we learn her secrets, she discovers truths about herself. This uncommon book, with its strange images and courageous heroine, is so suspenseful in so many different ways, I confess I sneaked peeks ahead. What can I say? I was under the spell of Area X.

Luckily, I don't need to wait long to continue VanderMeer's thriller mash-up of horror, sci fi, and fantasy examining reality and perception. Authority, second in the Southern Reach Trilogy, will be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 6, 2014. The third book, Acceptance, will be out on September 2, 2014.

Map of Area X by Jeremy Zerfoss

Note: Images are from Jeff VanderMeer's page on

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