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Book review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

AnnihilationBook Review:
Annihilation
by Jeff VanderMeer

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014.


Back in January, I read the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s ambitious Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation. It’s taken me most of the following months to fully digest my thoughts on this book, as well as mentally prepare myself to start the sequel, Authority.

In Annihilation, we join the members of the twelfth expedition to the mysterious zone of land called Area X. The first group, we are told, came back reporting an idyllic, pristine landscape, but subsequent expeditions ended in mass suicide, murder, a series of mysterious disappearances, and more. The twelfth expedition’s mission is to study the landscape of Area X, write down their findings, and above all, avoid being “contaminated” by the very environment they’re there to study.

In the group there are four women– an anthropologist, a psychologist, who is also the leader of the group, a surveyor, and our narrator, the biologist. Not much is known about any of their histories outside of their roles in the expedition. Though each member of the group has a different part to play, as the mission continues, it becomes clear that not all is as they have been told.

Part of the joy of Annihilation is that I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this book, much like the participants of the twelfth expedition really had no idea what to expect from Area X. What I thought was going to be a mystery set in an exotic locale, is actually a very creepy, psychological novel that will get in your head and stay there for weeks after you’re done reading. Annihilation is told in the past tense by our delightfully unreliable narrator, the biologist. Upon rereading the first paragraph, I don’t know why I didn’t see that this was going to be one creepy book. It begins like so:

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.

Soon, our narrator becomes obsessed with this underground “tower” and wants to continue exploring despite the uneasiness of some of her companions. Thus the tower, now the center of our narrator’s world, also becomes the focus of the book. As they explored, I found myself slowly begin to both dread and anticipate the slow descent underground. Immediately, we know nothing good will come from this expedition, but it’s too late to turn back, and soon curiosity takes its hold.

The plot unfolds beautifully and VanderMeer writes some of the most mesmerizing passages I’ve read in a long time. Annihilation is a fascinating character study of a person and a place. It’s also an examination of the ways place, and nature, can effect a person, as we see through the biologist’s eyes. VanderMeer’s effective use of the unreliable narrator requires readers to constantly reevaluate what we’re being told.

Annihilation is a compelling and haunting psychological read that I’d highly recommend. It’s the first in a trilogy, but works just as well as a stand-alone novel.

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