WTF?!

WTF?!

“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 reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.”

Every now and again, you find a book that makes you think, “What the hell?” It could be because it’s so good or clever. Perhaps it stirs up those feelings because you can’t believe it ever got published. And then there are those books that make you think that simply because they’re on another scale of weirdness, confusion and sheer insanity. This brings me to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach trilogy.

The story opens with four women entering the quarantined Area X as members of the twelfth expedition. The last eleven have … not gone so well. One ended with everyone committing suicide, another with the survivors all dying of cancer not long after their return. We aren’t given any names, but the four explorers are known by their titles: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and, our narrator, the biologist. They make notes in their journals about what they find in Area X, and have been instructed to explore the landscape with particular emphasis given in their training to a lighthouse on a nearby shore.

But there is more than just a lighthouse here. There’s a tunnel for one thing, although the biologist is insistent that it is a tower, despite none of it being above ground. There’s something loud and angry living in the reeds, and there are suspicions that, within hours of the expedition starting, the biologist has been compromised, and not everything they were told during their training is strictly true. For a start, this tunnel (or tower) isn’t on any of their maps, and inside it are words written in a type of living fungus. The four women must try to work out what exactly happened to Area X and the people who have come here before them … if they survive that long.

I’ve been struggling throughout this book to work out what the best word to sum it up is and it’s only upon finishing that I’ve got it: “creepy”. It’s not billed as a horror, but the whole thing is driven by suspense and an urge to turn the page in the hopes that one of the endless questions will soon be answered. Few of them are, so if you’re the sort of reader who likes to understand things, keep away from this book. It is the first in a trilogy though, so perhaps answers are coming, but I somehow doubt it. Paragraphs are long and descriptive, both of the wilderness of Area X and of the feelings that the biologist is wrestling with. We find out a little about her life before signing up for the expedition, but not much. Still, what we know of her is far in excess of what we know of the other three women.

There is very little dialogue in the book; the women are not friends and do not seem to like to talk about their private lives. Maybe this is why they were chosen, or maybe they are under instructions not to. Can they even be sure they’ve all been given the same instructions before setting out? The book contains an endless stream of unanswered questions, and every time you think you’re about to get an answer, you may find another six or seven questions come along with it.

I’ll probably return to Area X for the sequels, Authority and Acceptance because I did enjoy it a lot, but before reading a brief synopsis of the next book, I would have had no idea where this was going, as it ends with a very definite finish. Like I say, if you don’t like being left hanging, then don’t read this, but if you like something that just feels a little bit too strange for comfort, dive in.

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