Tuesday, 18 February 2014

‘Annihilation’ – Jeff Vandermeer (Fourth Estate)

For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences.
‘Annihilation’ is the story of the twelfth expedition and is told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.
But they soon find out that they are being manipulated by forces both strange and all too familiar. An unmapped tunnel is not as it first appears. An inexplicable moaning calls in the distance at dusk. And while each member of the expedition has surrendered to the authority of the Southern Reach, the power of Area X is far more difficult to resist.

'Annihilation' is a journey, a promise, a post-hypnotic suggestion and what must be the slowest most drawn out invasion ever (and who is invading who, we have to ask). Above all else though, 'Annihilation' is the promise of inevitable change and a whole load of questions. What are those questions? Read the book and you will find that you have loads of questions. I get the feeling that Vandermeer has already told us everything that we need to know but he has hidden it all within the gorgeous background of Area X and beyond the sight of an expedition that doesn't really know what to do in Area X now it's there.

Those are the hooks that Vandermeer uses to draw us in and they work a treat. I always enjoy Vandermeer's work so wouldn't have put this book down anyway but Area X is so lavishly recognised on the page that it is all too easy to just become completely immersed in it; especially when we view it through the eyes of the Biologist, a woman trying to come to terms with Area X in the only way that she knows how (by cataloguing it). Strange sounds in the night (and the Crawler…) also make for an unsettling atmosphere that sits just on the edge of your reading; just the right place for it to send little tendrils of fear into those parts of your brain that still fear the unknown beyond the light of the campfire…
As the book progresses, the Biologist’s questions become our questions which lead to more questions of our own and, before you know it, the end of the book has arrived and you want the next one sooner rather than later. That's me by the way, I've got my own theories and I'm eager for the next book to arrive so I can see how they play out.

If one thing is clear about ‘Annihilation’, Jeff Vandermeer is bloody good at spinning a tale that tells us everything and nothing all at the same time (especially so given that the book itself is only a couple of hundred pages long). Not only that, he keeps the reader on board when a lesser writer would leave the reader feeling frustrated at the opacity in the text.
If you’re thinking about giving ‘Annihilation’ a go, I would say stop thinking about it and just do it. There is so much to think about here and even though Area X seems like it is safely locked up behind words, it will change you nevertheless.

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