The Beauty of Annihilation

I usually don’t do book reviews. It’s hard to critique another writer’s work because I know that behind every book – no matter the end result – was a soul doing his or her best. So I generally keep my thoughts to myself, and try to learn what went right or wrong in a book in order to hone my own craft.

But it’s easy to review a book you loved, and such is the case for Jeff VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION from his Southern Reach trilogy. Now, I don’t know Jeff, and he doesn’t know me.

I initially heard of the trilogy through the entertainment website Deadline Hollywood, where I learned the book was being made into a movie by one of my favorite directors Alex Garland (I LOVED “Ex-Machina”) that may star Natalie Portman as the Biologist.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a fan of synopses. There is something that sounds so cheesy about many of them. This, of course, includes even my own synopsis for WHAT LIES WITHIN. I remember hearing about “E.T.” as a boy (yes, I’m dating myself here), and I thought, It’s a story about an alien that was left behind? DUMB. And yet, later, I bawled through it, over and over. A movie about a shark that terrorizes a tourist coastal town? RIDICULOUS. Unless it’s “Jaws.”

I had the same initial reaction to reading the synopsis of ANNIHILATION. “Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization.” And so an expedition is sent in, the twelfth. I thought, What is this? “Lost” meets “Alien”?  UGH.

But I like to know what books are being made into movies (so that I don’t inadvertently work for a year on a novel, only to realize far too late that it’s too much like a movie in production.)

So I bought the book.

And immediately, I was sucked in. The language is sumptuous, detailed, and VanderMeer has a way of creating a total sense of unease. In fact, the whole time I read it, I was gripped with a sense of anxiety. I gulped the novel down in about two days, and the story owned me. It’s the kind of book where nothing else matters – not answering the phone, surfing the Internet, nothing. I was completely caught in its spell.

And like all great books, it breaks rules. These characters aren’t necessarily likeable; there’s no “Save the Cat” moment in the beginning (Hollywood-speak for making a main character likeable by literally having him or her saving a cat at the beginning of  a story). The characters don’t even have names, but are referred to by their function: Linguist, Biologist, Psychologist, etc. It makes sense in the world of the story, but talk about not being able to bond with your characters as a reader. And yet, it works beautifully.

I had no idea where the story was going; the plot moves along, with twists and turns, and reveals, and though (spoiler alert) I felt that the main character waiting to read the diary was a writer’s convenience, it’s a very minor flaw in the overall scheme of the book. The story and characters transported me to a new world.

This is not a novel that panders to the reader. Though it’s easy to read, it’s not “easy reading.” It asks questions and doesn’t readily answer them. If you’re easily frustrated or need every piece answered, this book is not for you. But if you love a mystery, a mystery that submerges you into a texture of the unknown, leaving you wanting more, then this book is most definitely for you.

After I finished, I immediately purchased the follow-up AUTHORITY. Lesson learned, once again: never judge a book by its synopsis.