The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

The Southern Reach Trilogy, made up of Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, is a sort-of-sci-fi series about a mysterious environmental phenomenon, whereby a region, dubbed Area X, is cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious border. The series focuses on the backwater government agency devoted to investigating the phenomenon, the Southern Reach.

I read pretty much all three books in this trilogy in about a month, which I think is the fastest I’ve ever read a series of books. It’s just an incredibly compelling idea, and because of the way you’re drip fed information in tiny bits and pieces, there’s constantly a reason to keep reading. It’s incredibly compellingly written, especially the first book in the series. For me, the second one was a little slower and then it picked up again in the third, although because of the way the third switches narrative perspectives it was slightly more frustrating as a reader. The changing perspectives allow for cliffhangers at the end of virtually every chapter, whereas the first two books had been locked onto an individual narrator it had been a pretty continuous story.

These are very weird books, deliberately so. They’re unsettling and grotesque and creepy, and this makes them kind of uncomfortable reading. Annihilation in particular is very tense, and I really enjoyed the way the narrator, who is first person in this case, only reveals information about her life before she enters Area X as it naturally occurs to her. Often I find that backstory will be plonked in wherever, and it can be jarring. The book is entirely set in Area X, which makes is highly atmospheric, and centres around the all-female twelfth expedition to enter it.

Authority switches to a second person narration, and is locked to the recently arrived director of the Southern Reach. What I love about the device of switching narrators is that the main character in the second book doesn’t know things that we as the reader do know from the first book, but there’s also other information which he has access to which we don’t. It has moments of the creepiness of the first novel in the trilogy, but for me it really didn’t hold up. Where the first book was five stars, the second was three, and that felt like quite a drop.

Acceptance, as I said, jumped between various narrators, written in all three persons, which was a particularly interesting move for the character written in the second person. By doing that VanderMeer identifies us as readers most closely with that character, which is intriguing because until this point, that character has been the most inaccessible to us. It’s back to being predominantly inside Area X, which I definitely preferred, but also moves around in time. There are a lot of questions left unanswered, which I kind of like because this doesn’t feel like a story which can be neatly wrapped up, but which I am also deeply frustrated by because I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON.

A lot of the images VanderMeer describes are hard to imagine, and I think are deliberately described in ways which don’t create clear, specific ideas of how such a thing might look. What I wonder, is if he has a clear image and has decided not to share it, or if he hasn’t got it completely clear in his head. I’m not sure if either of those is better than the other. There are also a few things which are stated as if they are obvious which are not remotely obvious, particularly decisions made by the characters, and that is irritating.

As readable as I found these books, the more I think about them the more I pick holes in them. More to the point, I’m not convinced I will actually be thinking about them for much longer. They’re so confusing as to make them kind of forgettable; even though I read all three close together, I found myself struggling to remember what had happened. I probably would recommend reading them all the same – they’re enjoyable and brilliantly paced. They’ve got bloody stunning covers too.