Book Review: ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer

Fear of losing one’s self and one’s mind drives a lot of fiction these days, but I can safely say that Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller Annihilation is one of the most original and thought-provoking takes on the theme I’ve read. Somewhere in the American South, an ecological mystery zone is spreading, governed by the top-secret Southern Reach organization. Some who enter kill themselves; some kill each other. The last expedition materialized randomly back at their homes, dying of aggressive cancer within months. Annihilation is the story of the twelfth expedition, told from the perspective of the an idiosyncratic biologist. The expedition quickly unravels amidst ever-eerier encounters with the natural (and unnatural) world, leaving the biologist to uncover devastating secrets…and to wonder if Area X is truly a disaster, or a blessing in disguise. While parts of the story feel almost hypnotically dull, it’s also, somehow, unputdownable. If you’ve ever been lost in the woods, you’ll recognize the mixed sensations of dread and wonder that Annihilation inspires. VanderMeer’s vision is breathtaking here, and my quibbles with his execution pale in comparison to the vast feelings of awe and possibility I felt while reading: exactly what I go to science fiction for in the first place.

You can read my full review below.


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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: February 4, 2014
  • length: 195 pages
  • cover price: $14.00

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Annihilation, page 1

I’m usually a “book first, movie second” kind of reader, but the movie adaptation of Annihilation came out of left field earlier this year and had me completely under its spell before I’d even heard of the novel. The film’s vision of a sci-fi future in which an alien crash landing causes a violent “shimmer” to begin devouring the American South, mutating everything it encounters, completely engrossed me–and while I was warned that it was a very loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (Annihilation is the first in a trilogy), I knew I had to read it, if only to get another hours-long fix of the eerie world of the shimmer, a.k.a. “Area X” in the novels.

It’s true that the movie and novel are vastly different, but after reading Annihilation, I wasn’t disappointed at all by those differences–far from it. If you’ve read the book and been hesitant about the movie, or vice versa, I’m here to say that I think they both do an admirable job with the premise: a doomed expedition explores a creepy cordoned-off zone that’s as beautiful as it is dangerous, and finds more than they bargained for.

And with that, I’ll stop talking about the movie, since I really do intend this as a book review!

The most striking thing about Annihilation from the very first page is how bloodless and almost bland the narration is. The conceit is that we’re reading the journal of a member of the twelfth expedition known only as The Biologist (for unknown reasons, the Southern Reach strips all expedition participants of their names before they enter Area X). The biologist’s voice is extremely idiosyncratic, cold, and obsessive; I think that’s a polarizing choice on VanderMeer’s part, but it worked for me.

Something I loved about the diary structure is how it exposes the way the biologist has little allegiance to humanity and much more to the natural world. We get the sense early on that she wouldn’t be sad if Area X up and swallowed society as we know it. Pages and pages are devoted to how beautiful Area X is, including unsettling sights like human-dolphin hybrids and a strange moss/lichen/something that grows in the shape of ominous psalm-esque words; more disturbingly, she seems to view terrible violence as beauty, too. Her reaction to the death of a companion has the resigned-cum-awe feel that I associate with watching an osprey snatch a fish from a lake: that’s just the way of things, and at least it’s stunning to watch.

I don’t think that the biologist’s stance on humanity is necessarily wrong; I think a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to the fact that humans view other humans as exceptional, and the rest of nature as disposable. It’s just an unusual perspective to read about, especially in science fiction, which often draws from the “humanity must unite against apocalypse” well. Annihilation‘s tack is much more “humanity must concede to the apocalypse, and also acknowledge that it’s nothing personal.”

A lot of other science fiction (looking at you, The Matrix) also proposes that the world might be better off without us; the difference is that in those other movies, books, and TV shows, I always feel like I’m being manipulated into thinking either that of course humanity should survive, or of course I should take the cynical, suicidal view and think we shouldn’t.

Annihilation, on the other hand, poses the question genuinely and almost casually; you’re welcome to feel either way. You don’t have to engage with the philosophical parts of this book if you don’t want to–the woman vs. nature story will be enjoyable regardless–but there’s an abundance of riches here if you’re an overthinker like me, and I love that VanderMeer has created a novel that works on so many levels.

Unfortunately, Annihilation‘s pacing and plot do fizzle at times. There’s a lot of doubling-back, both literal (the biologist hiking back and forth around Area X) and ideological (is Area X good? is it bad? what is it? we just don’t know). Sometimes there’s a heart-pounding action sequence that suddenly stops dead as the biologist reminisces about her life. And there are several revelations that left me scratching my head, and not in an exciting “I wonder what happens next” way: more of a “where could VanderMeer possibly be going with this?” way.

For me, it wasn’t enough to ruin my enjoyment, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t stand when characters act stubbornly and/or stupidly, you might find it to be a deal-breaker.

To be fair, some of the vagueness (though not the biologist’s stubbornness) could be attributable to Annihilation‘s position as the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy. I haven’t read the latter two books–Authority and Acceptance–yet, but I’ll gladly deliver a verdict when I finish the trilogy, which should be soon. I can’t wait for payday when I can splurge on those two in good conscience.

Ultimately, what I can’t get out of my head is Annihilation‘s drastic (and I think successful) experiments with selfhood and setting. VanderMeer creates a world in which giving up our individual needs to participate in collective systems instead–the human system of the Southern Reach, and the natural one of Area X–seems not only practical, but appealing. When you look at how society (especially Western society) is set up, inverting the reader’s perspective in that way is a tremendous achievement. I love that kind of ambition.

Annihilation is an immersive and reliable ticket out of everyday life for a few hours. It’s as visionary and cerebral as it is earthy and grounded, and I’m convinced there’s something here for everyone. Even if you don’t love the trip, it’s an unforgettable view out the window. ★★★★☆


I purchased my own copy of Annihilation and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 7.6.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m back after my restful hiatus (the surgery was a raging success!) and I’m ready to catch up on all the reading I’ve fallen behind on this month. These books have more than whet my appetite. Let’s dive in!


The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

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The Hole Cover

the premise: Ogi caused a car accident that killed his wife and left him severely disabled. As he reckons with intense grief and guilt, his mother-in-law begins acting strangely, causing him to question everything he thought he knew about his former life with his wife.

why I’m excited: This book was a massive success in Korea, and the English translation was a nominee for the 2017 Shirley Jackson awards. It’s a terrifying, novella-length thriller that’s apparently reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery. Doesn’t that sound amazing? I’m in. (I’m also seriously excited about the state of Korean literature, since this book also sounds reminiscent of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I loved. I hope the success of these books spurs more translations into English.)

All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller

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9780062798206the premise: It’s right there in the title: All the Ever Afters is the story of Cinderella’s stepmother. In this version, stepmother Agnes starts out as a serf and nursemaid to Ella, the beautiful, ethereal girl who will eventually become a princess. After Ella’s marriage, horrible rumors begin to spread about her childhood,  and Agnes fights to hold on to the real story.

why I’m excited: I’m not sure if any Cinderella-related story is actually “untold” at this point–it’s one of the most popular and most-adapted stories of all time–but this one caught my eye because it looks like it’ll dig deep on the misogyny and class politics that underpin the fairy tale. I hope it’s not too gritty, since I’ve gotten quite sick of Gregory Maguire-style retellings (which this is getting compared to), but I’m excited to give it a shot.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

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Girls Burn Brighter Coverthe premise: Poornima and Savitha are best friends living in an impoverished Indian village, but when an act of staggering cruelty drives the two girls apart, Poornima is determined to be reunited with her best friend. She escapes an arranged marriage and travels the breadth of India and the world on her mission, uncovering startling secrets along the way.

why I’m excited: You know, this one could be hit or miss for me. I sometimes struggle with the kind of novel, like this one, that seems determined to expose the horrible underbelly of the world. But the focus on the girls’ friendship is a strong point in its favor, as are the extremely positive reviews the book has received. I’m hoping the pessimist in me is wrong and that the optimist in me finds the insides of this book to be as brilliant and striking as its cover design.

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

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9780062856791the premise: Lisa is a single mother living a quiet life–too quiet, at least according to her daughter, Ava, who wishes to live a normal life with her secret boyfriend. Lisa’s friend Marilyn is concerned about Lisa’s isolation, but she has problems of her own. When a betrayal buried deep in Lisa’s past threatens to have terrible consequences in the present, the secrets these three women keep from each other become explosive–and devastating.

why I’m excited: I received this advance reader copy from the publisher (it doesn’t come out until September) and I am beyond excited for it. I’m a huge fan of literary thrillers, especially ones starring women. I also can’t get enough of the “dark secrets in her past” trope. This and Pinborough’s earlier novel, Behind Her Eyes, have gotten rave reviews from people like Stephen King; the buzz they’ve already generated in Pinborough’s native U.K. is astonishing. I can’t wait to lose an afternoon or two to this one.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: STRAYING by Molly McCloskey

Straying is a portrait of a marriage gone stale; it’s also the story of a daughter struggling to understand her mother, and the story of an American woman in Ireland who finds–metaphorically, at least–that she can’t go home again. (Straying‘s protagonist, Alice, is at the heart of all three threads–she’s the cheating wife, the disappointing daughter, and the wander-lost American, respectively.) Nothing is new or exciting about that plot, but Molly McCloskey’s sharp prose style elevates the experience somewhat, especially in the first third of the book, which captures the staticky, on-edge feeling of being in love with the wrong person perfectly. Unfortunately, the decay of Alice’s marriage is nowhere as insightful or interesting as its beginning, and while I understand that that’s likely a conscious choice on McCloskey’s part, the latter two-thirds still make for dry, abrasive reading. Straying starts with a spark and plenty of tinder, but it never catches fire.

You can read my full review below.


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Straying by Molly McCloskey

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 20, 2018
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $24.00

How do people do it, I used to wonder. Well, I learned. That sort of secret feels like an illness, the way the world slows to a crawl as though for your inspection. So much clarity and consequence–it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit.

Straying, page 1

I think that there are two iconic American dreams: one of coming to America and one of leaving it. Alice, Straying‘s narrator, decides to visit Ireland because she realizes that a full European tour is out of her budget; she ends up moving there in working in a pub for a summer, and though her experience isn’t glamorous at all I still felt my heart beating faster.

How romantic! I thought. I wish I could drop everything and move to Ireland.

And that was the last romantic, silly thought I had while reading this book, which is one of the dreariest I’ve experienced in some time.

Part of that dullness lies in Straying’s subject matter. I don’t like to ding authors for that in my reviews, since more than anything else, our preferences for what we like to read and write about are personal. I can’t develop a coherent rubric for why I love books about cults but am wary of mid-life crisis novels; it’s pure preference, and I had the sneaking suspicion throughout Straying that nearly everything I disliked about it was just that: preference.

McCloskey seems to evade (or at times, to stomp on) warm-fuzzies everywhere they might naturally pop up. In a nutshell, Straying is about how Alice moves to Ireland, falls in a sort-of love, falls out of it, embarks on an affair, works for NGOs in war zones, loses her mother, and feels a lot of things about homesickness. The novel is told out of order, partially in flashback to the ’80s and partially in the present day, so this is all established early (which is why I don’t consider them spoilers). The tension lies entirely in the sordid specifics, which unspool agonizingly slowly and pessimistically.

For example, instead of finding any sort of tourist’s joy in Ireland, Alice seems disenchanted immediately. The kindest, most loving thought she has about Eddie, her once-husband, is about his solidness–that he will someday be the kind of old man she likes. She loves her mother recklessly and yet lives almost her whole life away from her.

To me that’s all very realistic, very sad, and very, very boring.

But what do I know? Another major theme of the book is the recklessness of youth. I’m 23 and fully in my reckless phase, so it was probably inevitable that I would find this book as dry as sawdust. (When I initially picked it up, I thought more of it would focus on Alice’s younger self, but it’s mostly told from her late middle age.) I’m about to get married myself–of course I’m not going to want to be reminded of all the ways my life could go wrong. Of course I would find this book stolid. Of course I would find it unpleasantly hardened.

But there’s still a lot to like here. Every character feels almost disconcertingly three-dimensional, like I could access their backstories Magic Eye-style by crossing my eyes a bit. McCloskey has a knack for making observations about life that are so true and painful that they made my blood run cold. And Alice is a truly wonderful first-person narrator, prickly and vulnerable, someone we get a real sense of as a participant in the story instead of someone who is just a glorified third-person narrator.

Most of all, I loved how McCloskey writes about Ireland in the 1980s. While I was reading, Ireland’s grimy upstart-ness, its trauma and resilience, its falls and rebirths, and its smells and sights and geography were all as real to me as the Saint Paul, Minnesota streets outside my window.

While Straying wasn’t to my taste, it still felt like a conversation with someone very interesting; someone whom you want very much to like you and think of you as sophisticated. Maybe it wasn’t to my taste exactly because I didn’t feel like I measured up to the novel’s exacting gaze.

No one likes to be predictable. Everyone likes to think their story is the special one. Perhaps McCloskey’s refusal to write about someone special is, in itself, very special, even if it is far from enjoyable. It’s food for thought, anyway. ★★★☆☆


My copy of Straying came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.