“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…”
What an intensely probing novel Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is. In some ways, this novel—the first in the Southern Reach trilogy—defies a proper summary; rather like Area X, the mysterious, secluded wilderness that for thirty years has been cordoned off from the public, and has largely remained unknowable.
Eleven expeditions have been sent to Area X before, one ending in a hail of gunfire, another mass-suicide. For this, the twelfth foray into this strange, shifting place, four women set out to find answers—an anthropologist, surveyor, psychologist and biologist, our narrator. All are nameless and events are told in the form of our narrator’s written journal—which makes it difficult to know exactly who to trust.
It quickly becomes clear that our narrator is not telling us everything as the members of the expedition quickly find trouble. A mysterious tower—or ‘tunnel’ to everyone but our narrator—yields some disturbing discoveries. On the walls, mysterious words stretch across, snaking down to a seemingly never-ending number of levels. The words are alive, teeming with a multitude of critters and made out of lichen and moss, and something else lurks in the shadows. Our narrator’s decision to plumb the depths and see the words first will have interesting repercussions.
Perhaps inevitably in this dreamlike wilderness, tempers soon fray and minds wander. VanderMeer’s novel recalls the hit television series Lost, with its increasingly complex island which seems to live and breathe itself, messing with the mind of its inhabitants. It was a show that gave out information sparingly, and Annihilation reveals its snippets of information equally slowly, building in an intensely gripping—and often decidedly creepy—fashion.
Everyone on the expedition seems to have set out with their own agendas, some more nefarious than others, and, of course, VanderMeer doesn’t give us all the answers—far from it. With another two sequels to come, Annihilation gives the reader enough to tease and cajole, leaving us wanting more—and he leaves Area X sufficiently mysterious enough that he could take the narrative forward in any number of directions. This reader is excited and intrigued to see how the series moves forward.