For thirty years, Area X, monitored by the secret agency known as the Southern Reach, has remained mysterious and remote behind its intangible border– an environmental disaster zone, though to all appearances an abundant wilderness. Eleven expeditions have been sent in to investigate; even for those that have made it out alive, there have been terrible consequences. This is the story of the twelfth expedition, told by its nameless biologist. Introverted but highly intelligent, the biologist brings her own secrets with her. She is accompanied by a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor, their stated mission: to chart the land, take samples and expand the Southern Reach’s understanding of Area X.
And that’s most of the blurb. Which takes you straight into the middle of the action – from the first line we are pitchforked right into Area X as the biologist struggles to recover from the journey over the border. And is recording exactly what she sees around her. VanderMeer manages to have the prose pinging with tension right from the opening passage – and while this is definitely an adrenaline-filled exploration filled with incident and shocking occurrences, it is also so much more.
There is more than a touch of Margaret Atwood in the manner in which VanderMeer has the gruesome and shocking discoveries shake up our aloof, wary biologist to the extent that she confides her own story of exactly why she volunteered for Area X. And her own secret is both sad and harrowing. As events within Area X spiral out of control, the biologist is driven to tell her own tale in sections – leading to the climax.
VanderMeer is a highly skilled writer at the top of his game – this could so easily have turned into some spatterpunk gore-fest. But his control over the bizarre and creepy is pitch perfect, as is the pace at which this story unfolds. This isn’t my favourite sub-genre by a long country mile – I’m not a huge fan of creepy nastiness. But I was so hooked by the need to know what exactly would happen to the biologist, I couldn’t put the book down. And do I want to read Authority, the next in the series? Oh for sure. Since I completed the book, the beautiful, terrifying world of Area X keeps sliding back into my head every so often – reminding me of the heartbreak of human relationships. And what might happen to us, if our natural surroundings ever decide to fight back…