By the time we were ready to cross the border, we knew everything…and we knew nothing.
That’s the best way to describe reading Jeff VanderMeer’s psychological thriller and first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Everything and nothing is as it seems as a 4-person expedition makes their way into the mysterious Area X, an abandoned stretch of US Coastline that has been reclaimed by nature (or something quite the opposite). The group, which consists of four women — all unnamed, is the twelfth expedition into the fabled area, which is as mysterious as the organization that sent them there.
The Biologist, our narrator, is a stoic, unsuspecting heroine of the journey who is following in the footsteps of her husband, who was in the previous expedition that had returned as shells of their former selves before all suddenly dying of cancer. The book is said to be her journal that all expedition members are expected to maintain. This gives us one of the first points of brilliance from VanderMeer. Her incredulous experience is enhanced by “her” honest writing. However, whether or not it’s honest is up for debate. I mean, it is her account of the entire ordeal. She even contradicts herself in some parts of her journal. The book uses the unreliable narrator trope to perfection.
Our unreliable narrator also makes it seem that she’s the most sane of the group. There’s the group leader, the psychologist, who she paints to be a suspicious observer of the other three. The anthropologist is merely seen as a useless tool, and the surveyor as brute. She makes herself out to be the heroine, but whether or not she is is unknown.
The novel has been marketed as a psychological thriller, or, perhaps, horror would be better suited. But I believe the novel is Loftcraftian in nature. It doesn’t rely on terrible gore, although it’s certainly graphic enough. Instead, VanderMeer uses the fear of the unknown to his advantage. He uses it to build suspense — deafening, aching suspense — that makes you fear what’s around the corner (or the next page).
As the expedition goes from bad to worse, mysteries are uncovered, sometimes solved, but overall, VanderMeer maintains a veil over everything going on in Area X. I will warn you, if you’re a book reader that needs to get answers before the last page, then this isn’t the read for you. Those mysteries are what drive the book. They’re what induce horror into you. However, the book has enough twists and thrills to keep you entertained through out.
One the other hand, if there is a downfall to the novel, it is its leading character. It’s not that the biologist is underdeveloped. Quite the opposite, actually. The action of the story is often halted to give her development through her experiences. Frankly, that development proves that she’s just a boring character and borderline unlikeable. The skilled and spontaneous surveyor ends up being the most intriguing, or simply most human character of the team. VanderMeer’s characterization of the biologist as the typical introvert geek who’d rather be with a tidal pool than with people just feels inherently unrelatable.
The weak main character aside, Annihilation is a quick and entertaining read that keeps you guessing till the very last page. VanderMeer’s writing may be long and, at times, tedious, but it will hook you and never let you go. It’s that dragged out nature that gives you a sense of dread, even when you feel safe. Truly, there’s no refuge in the pages of the novel.
Annihilation is just the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy; however, even 200 pages into the entire series as a whole, I have no idea where it could go. As I said, Annihilation created as many mysteries as it solved, but just how many there are in total is yet to be answered.