A review of Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
For decades the mysterious Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world, no longer fit for human habitation.
A secret government agency, known as the Southern Reach, has sent a number of expeditions to document the area, which is a beautiful, coastal wilderness.
But several of the expeditions were ill-fated: one group committed suicide, whilst in another the members turned violently on each other. The most recent expedition returned home unexpectedly, only to fall victim to an aggressive form of cancer.
Now the twelfth expedition has arrived in Area X, but what they find there is truly shocking.
Annihilation is the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy and from the outset it is a chilling and tense read. At just under 200 pages, it’s a short book, and thanks to the uncertain nature of the story I powered through it in one sitting.
This is the sort of book that is hard to categorise as it contains elements of several genres: horror, psychological thriller, and science-fiction.
It’s also the sort of novel that stays with you, long after you’ve finished reading.
Expedition 12 is made up of four women: the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist and the biologist. A fifth woman, a linguist, was left behind before the expedition entered Area X. The story is told from the point of view of the biologist, and by her own admission, at times she makes for an unreliable narrator. Early in the expedition, an accident leaves her able to see and hear things that her colleagues cannot. It also seems to make her immune to the hypnosis that is used to allow people to cross the border into Area X, avoiding the hallucinations that might otherwise affect them.
The fact that none of the characters are ever named, only identified by their professions, is very interesting. Each expedition has contained people of similar skill sets and as expedition 12 learn more about their predecessors, they begin to bleed into one another, archetypes rather than individuals. The choice of skills is also revealing, as it hints that the Southern Reach know much more about Area X than they have revealed to the members of the expedition.
The novel opens with the group encountering a tower that is not marked on any of the maps drawn up by previous teams. From the start, their approach to exploring this peculiar landmark causes division among the women. But it is only when their investigation reveals several inexplicable and frightening things that the situation comes to a head, resulting in them breaking apart.
Area X is a place of conflicting extremes. It inspires a feeling of awe in expedition members, who often view it as a pristine wilderness, untouched by the modern world. Yet they soon realise that this beauty hides a fundamental truth about the place, that it is home to something horrifying, something transformative, something uncanny.
There are many ‘monsters’ in Annihilation, but they are always just ahead of the characters, and the reader. They are always just out of reach: a presence around the next corner, or an awful noise hidden amongst the vegetation.
This is the most frightening thing about the novel, for both the characters that are caught up in this terrifying situation, and the reader following them page by page. It is about the unknown. The horror is always lurking in the shadows and it is left to us to imagine what it might be. Naturally the mind will always jump to the worst possible conclusion.
And so the issue of truth and reality comes into play, recurring throughout the story as the biologist discovers more and more of the lies that she has been fed. But even as she is certain of her discoveries, she doubts herself and wonders whether she might be hallucinating, or whether the hypnosis might have affected her perception of the situation.
Annihilation explores the idea of what it is to be human, through an examination of our most fundamental fears and the nature of free will. Told from the biologist’s perspective and interspersed with glimpses of her past life, the story becomes very internal, which makes the action more immediate as the reader is carried along with this woman and everything she is experiencing. As a scientist, it is all the more difficult for her to reconcile each unlikely event with her concept of reality and so she spins into imagination, always coming up with more questions than answers that might explain her situation.
In places, this novel reminded me very much of one I read several years ago: Cold Skin, by Albert Sánchez Piñol. That book tells the story of a man who travels to live on a remote island, which comes under attack from creatures that emerge each night from the ocean. Both books have an underlying feeling of impending doom, of a knowledge that is just out of the protagonists’ grasp.
The rest of the Southern Reach trilogy will be released this year. I’m curious to see where the story will go next, and if an explanation for the mysteries of Area X will ever be revealed, or if it will be left open to the reader’s imagination.
Find out more about the book:
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) on Amazon (affiliate link)
Annihilation on Goodreads
Please note: I received an advance copy of this novel from the Amazon Vine programme for the purpose of writing a review, but all opinions are my own.