ANNIHILATION (Southern Reach #1) - by Jeff VanderMeer

ANNIHILATION - by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: February 2018 (Movie Tie-In)
Pages: 208.
Genres: Science fiction / adult / horror / thriller
Triggers/Content Advisory: Scenes of horror
Format: Paperback.
Source: Thank you so much to Jonathan Ball SA for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review.

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; the second expedition ended in mass suicide, the third expedition in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another. The members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within weeks, all had died of cancer. In Annihilation, the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition. The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one anotioner, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers--they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding--but it's the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.

Ever since I saw the buzz about the 2018 film (starring Natalie Portman), I was eager to read the original book. Now that I've read it, I feel strongly that it's the kind of book that some people will love, and some won't. It's written for readers who love sci-fi horror. But while that reader isn't me, I still appreciated what I read.

VanderMeer writes beautifully. The vocabulary is rich, the imagery is stunning, the dialogue is only there when absolutely necessary to the story, and the pace is slow and steady but entrancing at the same time. It's not an adrenaline-fueled ride - it's a quiet, but deathly scary journey.  It's more psychologically unsettling than it is blood-pumping. The plot is clever, but also terrifying, and your scalp will prickle and your skin will crawl with cold anticipation. It's very much a tangible horror. 

The story is also heartbreaking. There's a lot of pain in the characters - particularly in the protagonist - and my heart ached for the heroine as we got to see flashbacks of her life with her husband. It's not just a story of horror and terrors, it's a story with heart, and it hits hard. 

There's a lot of depth, too. The author is incredibly perceptive when it comes to the human condition, and he digs deep with the pain that haunts the protagonist and the other characters. He makes you think, and he won't let you forget.  The story leaves an impression.

When you see beauty in desolation, it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

There are certain kinds of death that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you.

You don't really get a lot of time to connect to the characters other than the heroine, since they either disappear or die off quite quickly. But from what I did see I enjoyed: I like how they "descend into madness" and are gradually affected by the supernatural forces around them.  It's unnerving, but it's heartbreaking. I also love how the characters' relationships escalate so quickly because of where they are and what they're faced with.

If you read this book, don't expect to find the answer to Area X or how it exists, etc. That's not what the book's about; you're never told how the place exists, it's just there and you have to accept it. The story is more about the heroine and how she's come to be there, and why she volunteered. It's about her and her husband and her life and the tragedy in her past.  It follows her journey. It tells her story. And that works so well.

Annihilation is a strongly written tale that digs deep into vividly imagined terrors and unsettling sci-fi catastrophe. It is intelligent, perceptive, and harrowing, and follows its female lead acutely as she struggles to find peace within the pain that haunts her. 

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