“When you are too close to the center of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire.”
When Annihilation opens, a lot has already happened. Approximately thirty years prior, in an undisclosed location, a mysterious event occurred that separated a portion of the coastline from the rest of the world. Now, the Southern Reach (a mysterious branch of an even-more mysterious government) is responsible for trying to find out just what is going on behind the borders of what is now called Area X.
As the book opens, the twelfth expedition into Area X has just arrived at their base camp, and it doesn’t take long for the situation to begin devolving. The expedition is comprised of four women who have been stripped of their identities by the Southern Reach save for their job titles: an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist (their mysterious leader), and a biologist (our narrator). Saying much more about these women or the things they find, or what secret missions they may or may not have carried in with them, would spoil the suspense. Suffice it to say that Vandermeer doesn’t waste any time throwing you in the deep end of the world he has created for the Southern Reach trilogy, and he packs quite a lot into what should be a fairly scant 195 pages.
In the beginning I wasn’t convinced he would pull it off. His writing immediately reminded me of Ira Levin’s best work (Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives) in that it creates an air of menace at the same time it forces you to question the information you are being given (is the narrator reliable? Is she possibly crazy?). But at first, I wasn’t convinced that Vandermeer had earned the suspense. Levin’s novels were always short like this one, but he always began them in a ‘normal’ space so that you would have to question just when–and if–things began to get weird. Vandermeer doesn’t do that–he expects you to get to know his characters even as they find themselves in a situation where they have no footing and are careening for balance. Can you care about these characters when you have little opportunity to get to know them? You don’t even know their names!
The answer is not really, but that turns out to be beside the point. Area X and its bountiful mysteries prove to be enough of a draw to keep those pages turning–and to carry you over to the next book. If nothing else, you’ll be itching to see what the endlessly creative Vandermeer has waiting for you around the next corner.
Basically, Annihilation is like season one of Lost. It throws a lot of questions at you, but you’re kind of intrigued to see what’s going on. Find out if it’s worth hanging in there with my review of Authority, book 2 in the Southern Reach Trilogy.