Review. Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

I don’t know where to start this review, so let’s start with why I read this book in the first place. I have come across this book, and the entire Southern Reach trilogy multiple times – be it on GoodReads or in bookshops – but never felt the need to read them. It wasn’t until last month, when the challenge for Bookclub called for me to read a book by an author who shared my initials. My true initials, that is, not NR but JV. Turns out that there are little authors out there with those initials who also happen to have written a book I want to read. But then, somewhere down the list, was Jeff Vandermeer, so Annihilation it was. I don’t know how to start this review, much like I still don’t know how I feel about the book.

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.

Apparently, this book falls into the ‘new weird’ genre, much like China Miéville. While I have yet to read a Miéville, the genre new weird definitely fits Annihilation. Seemingly simple in plot, this book sure does take a turn for the weird pretty soon and it never gets back to normal. Switching between past and present, this book tells the story of the twelfth expedition into Area X, a strange piece of land that’s quarantined from the rest of the world for reasons unknown. Unknown being the key word here, cause answers is something you won’t get. Only questions. More and more questions. The members of the 12th encounter strange things/beings, experience weird phenomena, but the answers remain elusive. Vandermeer takes this to the extreme, in so far as having the book build up to its climax, but where it’s climaxing towards or why remains a mystery. While the unknown frustrated me at times, for I did not know what the hell I was reading and couldn’t make any sense of it, it was also the very thing that kept me going. It’s strange. Weird. But it’s what makes this book to what it is.
Only questions. More and more questions.
Mystery is also what defines the characters. In fact, of the four women who depart on this mission, we only get to know the narrator, the biologist, in any way. That is to say, we know her motivation for entering Area X and we know a bit of her past and what drove her to be a biologist in the first place. But that is about it, we don’t even know her name, let alone those of her compagnons. The fact that we don’t know a whole lot about the characters doesn’t mean that they are not interesting, on the contrary, the whole not-knowing is very much intriguing and especially the psychologist is a character that puzzles and fascinates me. I wonder if I’ll get to know her more in the sequels, cause the psychologist did some really fishy stuff there and it kept me wondering.. If she were partaking in a tv-show like The Mole, I’d say she’d be it.
some really fishy stuff there
A novel like this is a dare, I think. If you don’t provide any answers anywhere, you have to keep your readers engaged. What did it for me was not only the mystery of it all, but also the writing. Vandermeer kept me going and was able to keep the pace, even through slower or less significant parts, like those that took place in the past. When writing a book like this, it is easy to fall for gimmicky use of language, and I really appreciated Vandermeer for just keeping it plain and telling his story without reverting to linguistic ploys to uptain the mystery. Hell, there was mystery enough without juggling words.

While I had my reservations going into it and would probably never have picked it up if it weren’t for the challenge, I will continue this in my own time. I know I am probably fooling myself, but I remain optimistic in the fact that I will get answers eventually. Perhaps.

★ ★ ★

Dive into the mystery. Enter Area X.

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