A team of four women are tasked with charting the mysteries of an isolated coastal wilderness called Area X. Area X seems to irrevocably change any human who enters it (those who are lucky enough to leave). And Area X is spreading.
Reading the description of this book, I knew it fell squarely in my wheelhouse. The actual book fell obliquely; then skidded to a stop in a corner of my wheelhouse than I hadn’t expected, a secluded, Lovecraftian corner. (OK, I’ll drop the wheelhouse euphemism. What the Hell is a wheelhouse, anyway?) I expected to read something sparse and allegorically apocalyptic (The Road), but the book reminded me a lot of Albert Sanchez Pinol’s quasi-Lovecraftian novel, Cold Skin.
That’s not to say that this slim novel isn’t sparse and allegorical apocalyptic. Characters are only signified by job title or role, never by an actual name (the psychologist, the surveyor, the husband, etc.). The overall tone of the book is distant and clinical. The story is told in first person through the journal of a biologist. As a new writer, I’m always struggling with the yin and yang of showing vs. telling. First person POV seems particularly liable to lead to dreaded ‘telling.’ As I read each exceptionally crafted paragraph, it seemed to me that each chunk of prose was at least 60% exposition. But something about this narrative detachment—this fact-to-fact-to-fact storytelling—served to heighten the creep-factor, not buffer the reader from it. The book is punctuated by quite a few skin-crawling moments.
The biologist wanders pine forests and marshes (Man, I love me some maritime settings!) and encounters some typically Lovecraftian horrors of the indescribably monstrous variety. (You know the horrors are ‘indescribable’ because that’s always the first word H.P. Lovecraft used to describe them.) Toward the end of the book, the narrator shifts from detached observations of effed-up, unexplainable events to far-sighted hypotheses of what is actually happening, and that’s when the book takes a step backward. (Midi-chlorians, anyone?) This book is Part One of a three-book series, and I hope the next two books don’t shed too much light on this ephemeral mystery that Vandermeer has created.
One more thing: the covers of this series are kick-ass.