“…frustrating triumph” — Slate.com, Mac Rogers
I believe that neatly sums up my assessment of Jeff VanderMeer’s magnificent Southern Reach trilogy.
(SPOILER FREE REVIEW)
First, a quick recap:
Annihilation (Book 1) — A mysterious, alien environment named Area X has taken over a spot of land in a location I presume to be the Florida coastline (though the exact location is left unspecified). You can only enter and exit via a singular portal. An expedition team is sent into Area X to investigate. Annihilation is the story of these people, particularly a biologist who returns as the sole survivor.
The story is fascinating. It reminds me of all the parts of Lost that made me love that TV series so much.
Authority (Book 2) — We’re introduced to a new Southern Reach director who calls himself ‘Control’. The book amps up the tension as the pervading sense of weird and danger affects members of the Southern Reach. There is an entertaining battle of wills between Control and his assistant director, Control and his mother, and Control and the biologist from the first book.
Jeff VanderMeer masterfully explores interpersonal dynamics and uses them to create a book examining how we react to an unknown, looming danger.
Acceptance is the third book of the trilogy. The blurb on the back cover promises that answers will be provided. Ha! This ain’t my first rodeo, blurb author, I know how these things play out. A few answers will be provided, a few more will be hinted at, and a whole bunch will forever be left hanging loose.
Acceptance is a swirl of identities and personalities. The mystery of Area X is not the main concern of the author. I would propose it has much more to do with concepts of isolation, mistrust, loneliness, and, yes, acceptance. All our protagonists are somewhat difficult people, certainly lighthouses of individuality. They’re outsiders to the world. The metaphor here is that we all feel safer within boundaries we understand and control. Area X is that safe place.
VanderMeer enhances the separation the characters feel via the trick of points of view. First, second, and third are presented in Acceptance. He also employs timeline hops as a means of filling in the gaps. All this jumping in POV and setting gives a fair approximation of the disorientation the characters must be feeling.
Many of the wondrous and bizarre incidents and creatures that inhabit VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy are never explained beyond an extrapolated metaphorical sense. It *can* be a frustrating read for this reason. But to deny yourself the pleasure of reading VanderMeer’s masterpieces would be a shame. How else will you learn how to clean a mouse in a pond?