The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.
The first in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation is the story of four women who make up the 12th expedition to a strange, abandoned environment called Area X. As part of their training to enter Area X, the women are stripped of their names and discouraged from relating to one another on a personal level. They refer to themselves and each other solely by their occupations: the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor, and the psychologist. The story is told from the point of view of the biologist, who has a complicated personal history which colors her narration and understanding of events. Part of what led her to Area X was that her husband was a volunteer in a previous expedition. He came back home, but he was deeply changed.
Area X is truly creepy. It’s an uninhabited environment near the ocean that used to be home to a small town. It’s a place that is in many ways beautiful and familiar like a protected natural habitat, but slightly off – you get the feeling that the environment is predatory in some way. There’s an eerie quality in Vandermeer’s writing that makes even the most banal details seem ominous and ill-fated. I think I read the whole book with my shoulders slightly tensed.
I don’t want to give too much away, but for me, the book was always unexpected and always interesting. From a narrative standpoint, I was really compelled by the character of the biologist and unexpectedly moved by the story of her relationship with her husband. There was something pretty human about it to me – the ways we can take a connection for granted or not see it clearly until it’s gone. I think the through line of their relationship grounds the book and helps it transcend the confines of the “New Weird” genre. If you read it, you should expect to be thoroughly creeped out, but you might also find yourself appreciating the more human aspects of the story.
Ideal location to read this book: In a sparsely populated environment with extreme ecological diversity and other-worldly landscapes. Iceland, or maybe Greenland?
Overused literary device: At several points in the book there were moments of heavy tension that seemed to be leading to a big reveal, and then the biologist would make a complete left turn in her narration to talk about some detail of her childhood or marriage that would eventually tie back to the current situation she was in. I couldn’t figure out why the author did this. He may have been hoping to draw out the suspense, but for me it just undercut the tension in the scene and made me want to rush through the biologist’s backstory to get back to the cliffhanger. If I ever read the book again, I’m sure I’ll be able to enjoy those detours more, but the first time around it felt frustrating. Kind of like when The Last Jedi would go from the Luke / Rey / Kylo scenes to…literally anything else in the movie. Just kidding, The Last Jedi was awesome in it’s entirety. Okay, maybe we didn’t need the casino planet scenes. But I stand by the Poe/Admiral Holdo storyline. He learned a valuable lesson!
Number of times I had to stop reading and remind myself I was safe at home and not anywhere near Area X: At least a dozen
cover design notes
For the cover design, I referenced one of the most evocative images in the book for me. The expedition members come across a tunnel, or tower, and inside they find words written in cursive raised out of moss and vegetation. I wanted to make the illustration eerie – a bright, glowing green – but beautiful at the same time, true to the strangeness of Area X.