We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Outside the Genre Box”, in which we each picked a book from a genre or format that we don’t usually read.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer
Publishing Info: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2014
Where Did We Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world 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 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 another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—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.
This is not my first time reading “Annihilation”, as a few years ago I picked it up thanks to the recommendation of a circulation supervisor at a library I was subbing at at the time. Along with his rec, one of my good friends also said that she loved the series. Reading it through the first time was a weird, unsettling, but rewarding experience into weirdo gonzo sci-fi horror. So when Serena chose it for book club, I was pretty amped to give it a re-read.
And on the second time around, I was once again really into “Annihilation”. Vandermeer creates such a unique, creepy, and mysterious environment that feels like a character in and of itself. Area X is an unknown entity that dooms those who enter it, many of whom just straight up never come back, and those that do come back, well… They’re changed. As our characters (all nameless, referred to by their occupations in the expedition) start to fall prey to Area X, as well as their own paranoia and potentially even their compatriots, the first person Narrator, The Biologist, leads us on a confusing and convoluted journey where you don’t really know what’s going on. And that, in and of itself, is scary.
Vandermeer’s greatest strength is building up the unknown through the things we cannot see. For me, the scariest aspect was an entity referred to as The Moaner, which lets off terrifying baying sounds at dusk and night. I mean MY GOD. It’s things like this, as well as nefarious scheming that we see happen without much explanation, and the general breaking down of the explorers’s sanity, that kept my dread levels pretty high up on both reads. While other books may slowly start to peel back reveals, with foreshadowing, twists, and ah ha moments abound, those aren’t the kind of things that you find in this book. And our book club was pretty split as to how we felt about that. For some of us that worked. For others, it didn’t. But that just meant the conversation was great as we all peeled back the various layers.
“Annihilation” is weird. It doesn’t feel a need to give you many answers. But if you like weirdo Sci-Fi horror with a hint of eco-terror as well, it is absolutely the book for you.
When we came up with this round’s bookclub theme, I knew immediately that I wanted to do horror for my pick. Not only is it good to dabble in the genre that my co-blogger routinely writes about and reads, but I’ve found myself enjoying a decent number of horror-y book that have come across my reading pile recently (“Mexican Gothic” comes to mind right off the bat). But, of course, being me, I couldn’t resist a choice that also seemed to dabble in science fiction themes as well. And thus, “Annihilation!”
I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely a strange one, and I feel like my comfort reading epic fantasy novels where you’re routinely thrown into worlds full of strange words and rituals that are never really explained paid off really well for me. This book is weird and it’s only marginally interested in explaining itself. What does get explained only comes up in the last 20% or so of the story. So that leaves almost the entire book with the reader being just as (if not more) clueless than our nameless main character. It takes a long time to even get an answer about why there are so few answers to start with! A convoluted idea if ever there was one.
In many ways, the reader is left feeling unbalanced and confused throughout most of the read. This helps increase the building tension and fear when, for most of it, very little is actually, physically, happening. Instead, the book leans into the sense of doom and the greater fear of an unknown that you can’t see or understand rather than the monster that is richly described in detail for you.
The narrator is also an unknown. Much of her story plays out in a series of flashbacks to her life before entering Area X. She is is definitely a strange entity all on her unknown. I wasn’t quite sure if her oddness was an intentional choice on the author’s part or if he struggled to write from a woman’s perspective? Or some combination of things? I will say, characterization is perhaps not his particular strength as a writer, but the narrator was definitely serviceable in delivery all the oddness and spookiness inherent in Area X itself.
In the end, I think I was left with more questions than I had answers. Most of bookclub was just one big question: “What the heck did we just read?” But for me, this was a good question, and I’ll probably add the second book to my TBR pile.
Kate’s Rating: Super weird but incredibly fascinating, “Annihilation” is very unique in how it tells a story.
Serena’s Rating 8: Bizarre in the best way, this book dials into the fear of the unseen in a really great way.
Book Club Questions
- The main character’s past and her relationship with her husband directs a lot of her thoughts and actions. In what ways were these flashbacks important to her story? Was there any one moment/flashback that stood out to you as touching on the greater themes?
- There are a lot of unknowns in this book, from bigger mysteries surrounding Area X down to smaller details like characters’ names. How did this prevailing sense of the unknown affect your reading experience? Were you able to predict any of the reveals?
- What do you believe Area X is? Does it have a goal, and if so, what is it? Any theories regarding the meaning of the writing and the writer?
- This story walks the line between horror and science fiction. What aspects of the story/writing best represented each of these genres?
- This is the first book in a trilogy. Do you have any predictions for where the story will go from here? What are you most curious to learn more about?
Next Book Club Book: “Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close” by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman