Ladies and gentlemen, today’s book-hangover: Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer.
I must tell you right off the bat… this is the kind of book you constantly rub your chin through while wanting to call your book-worm friends and ask them what the hell is this and what the hell is that and what does all of this means; only to realize you have no friends who have read or are currently experiencing the Southern Reach adventure. So you are trapped alone in a book that seems short, but actually makes you ask yourself more questions than the anatomy books. Well done Jeff, well done. *slow clap*
This was my second read (I swear I’m not stupid, I just have a short memory); the first time I’ve read it, around 2 years ago, I remember being left with a peculiar feeling after finishing it – you know what it’s like when you put some cinnamon in your coffee and suddenly all that’s left after finishing the drink is the pungent, unique taste of cinnamon? There’s nothing like it really, nothing you can compare it with. That was pretty much the case with this book for me. I didn’t really know what hit me, but I loved it. Though I always felt during the first read that this is the kind a book that really need to be re-read in order to better understand the context and some details that might have been over-looked.
We have a crew formed by a biologist, an anthropologist and a psychologist (who is also the leader of the expedition), all women, going on an expedition in a place called Area X. We don’t know their names and they will simply be known as what their job is, a very interesting choice which you might think dehumanizes the character but actually, I think, does the exact opposite.
There were prior expeditions into Area X but we find out through the book that they failed, mostly for unknown reasons. Some members never returned, some returned suffering from a bizarre amnesia, some reappeared and all mysteriously died of cancer some months later. All of the expeditions were organized by the Southern Reach (also the name of the trilogy), an organization with an unknown purpose. For now.
The expedition we follow is dubbed the 12th expedition and after months of preparations and of training several survival skills they enter Area X and follow a map made by the previous expeditions. After arriving at base camp and beginning to explore, they discover a “tower” that is not on the map; it’s actually kind of… an inverted tower, as it spirals downward (technically you would call it a tunnel I guess). We also have a mysterious writing on the walls of the tower, which makes the crew suspicious of another and thus marking the beginning of a very tense atmosphere.
Another point of interest, this time one that they can find on the map, is the lighthouse – once a beacon that guided sailors to the shore, now a secluded place in the middle of an outlandish wilderness – and an aquatic environment.
There were some points in the books that I found extremely captivating: the very vivid descriptions without boring the reader whilst the author manages to actually transport you to the surreal of Area X. It’s a whole ecosystem in which every little puzzle piece is important, everything is connected, even the very vague information actually felt like crumbles left for us in order to find our way home, to what Area X really represents. I loved that, I loved that it was challenging and that the book required my full attention even at the smallest details. From the first pages the idea of a troubling and alive environment was conveyed; the animals from Area X have some key features, constantly giving the impression that they are actually just shells for a deeper, human-like consciousness trapped inside, like warriors and preachers for Area X.
The biologist, the one whose only perspective we actually see, is actually a out-of-this-world character. Her awkwardness regarding human contact and relationships is underlined by some flashbacks with her husband and their marriage. She is constantly more interested in how a certain ecosystem works than in social niceties or doing what other people do. She strikes me as someone who accepts their lack of knowledge of themselves, thus becoming in a way… powerful, more calm; she expresses a curiosity very similar to mine (I guess this is one of the reasons I could relate to her character) and her bravery in many situations is to be admired (she kept her cool, accepting the inevitable in extreme situations that would drive most people crazy). Given her profession she has a scientist’s eye and method, which I loved about her; I loved her approach and the way she diligently wrote information in her diary which seemed obsolete but actually had a great importance. She knew how to peel away the onion’s layers, so to speak, and see what’s inside.
Area X shows us, in many ways, the futility of human existence and how insignificant we are on a larger scale; plants grown over a village, over human-made devices, over buildings, an entire ecosystem estranged from us. All throughout the book I got these little signals that in Area X we are mere observers of something bigger than us.
I enjoyed the aquatic environment theme, something about it reminded me of the Lovecraftian mythos, about Cthulhu and the Deep Ones. I’m not sure if this was what the author intended, but for me this horror-ish Lovecraftian vibe was actually a plus.
Looking back, this book was like watching yourself in a mirror and after analyzing your other layer you feel the need of going deeper, you are forced to do that by the circumstances, scrutinizing your inside, your mind, even your cells; it’s like this mad journey which when you’re at intermediate points makes no sense, but once you reach what looks like a finish line things really fall into place, no matter how crazy the endgame might be. After finishing it I think you could actually sit and discuss meaning and themes for quite a while, as it is that kind of story where you end up bringing something personal with you back from the road; the way you perceive the whole journey, the decisions and the conclusions of the characters is entirely up to you.
Loved it, loved it, loved it – really good writing, simple yet effective. A slowly building tensions, a horror, an unknown that slowly creeps into the deepest crevices of your mind leaving you with an uneasy feeling, elements of science-fiction, strong characters and a complex and debatable message. Could you wish for more? SF fans, why don’t you give this one a go? And given that the movie is already in some theaters and coming-soon in others, read it before you watch it.
Overall rating: 5 stars
Goodreads link: Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)