A recommendation from rather a while ago that I’ve finally got round to (thanks Tea!). Something many ways outside my normal reading – I may or may not be a bit of a wuss about creepy things – but absolutely brilliant, and so so worth the read.
VanderMeer was definitely a name I’d heard before, but I don’t think I could have told you what he’d written, just that he was genre and possibly good? So I was coming into this without much in the way of foreknowledge or expectation (though I did really really like the cover art when I found it to buy online). And, as I’ve said before, I kinda like that. Just knowing someone I know liked it and thought it was good, and having no idea what it is but going for it anyway. Sure, it doesn’t always work. There will always be people with different taste to me, or books which are in many ways good but with which I just don’t get on. But it works surprisingly often, and I like the mystery.
Which is good, because this book comes with mystery by the bucketful.
The premise is that there’s a mystery piece of land that has been affected by some sort of natural occurrence (unspecified or unknown), and teams have been being sent in to investigate for some time. Our narrator is a biologist and member of the twelfth such expedition, sent into Area X to investigate, and is telling the story of the experiences of herself and the other team members, the surveyor, the psychologist and the anthropologist.
And we never get names for them. I like that. I like too that they all happen to be women, and no matter is really made of it. They’re still all known by their jobs, and are assessed by that as the major metric, or by how well they deal with all the shenanigans that befall inside Area X.
I don’t want to go into too much more detail on the premise, because it is very much a mystery novel, where the fun is in the slow unravelling of details and events, to build up a picture of what’s going on. To give much away beyond the first few pages would somewhat spoil that, so I shan’t. Instead, I want to talk about how it works as a creepy mystery, when most other stuff like this really really doesn’t cut it for me.
Primarily, this is because I am a wuss.
I am, I am sorry to admit, entirely too easy to creep out. This is the main reason I can’t deal with zombie media of any kind. Or jump scares. Or things where people get infested by nefarious beings. Or anything kinda sinister and likely to lurk in the night to come get me*. And so I tend to avoid books and films and such about creepy things, because I end up wanting the light on at night like I’m five, and that’s not a great feeling.
But there are occasionally exceptions. Stranger Things, for instance, which was amazing. But really damn creepy. And then this. It managed to have a quality I often find lacking in the creepy, which is compulsive readability. I could not put it down at all. It never felt like it was going to get any less creepy if I kept on going, but I still wanted to keep on going because of the mystery, and of wanting to know what happened next, and of being so involved inside the mind of the viewpoint character that I couldn’t quite bear to put her away.
And I think that’s what this book does best. It puts you inside the head of a complex and compelling character – who reveals herself to be unreliable, every now and then, only to tell you what she was hiding and once again place herself in your trust – and you really get a sense of her confusion and growing awareness throughout. But you also get a sense of her as a person – as a really complex, not entirely nice, regretful person, who has left some things behind and has her doubts and fears and resentments, and they all build up to form part of her… while at the same time, she keeps her language distant, cold and abstract. It’s a brilliant combination, and blurs the feeling of journal with the feeling of just first person viewpoint. I find particularly endearing her irrational dislike of some of the other people in the book, and her twists of whim and fancy that seem improbable but then make sense. She feels human, essentially. You don’t like her, and I don’t think you are meant to, but you get her.
The prose is also excellent, which helps. It very much has a character, a voice, and I’ll be very interested to see if that voice is different in the second book in the series, to see the extent to which it was a deliberate choice and part of the characterisation of the biologist.
But the descriptive passages really are excellent. You can really see the scenes he describes – even the ones that are deeply peculiar – and feel the atmosphere and the tension and drama. Which very much builds into the creepy thing. But it’s done so well that I forgive it. You hear the night-time noises of the natural world around the biologist, and certainly in my case, I had an extremely clear mental feel for the place described, however weird it was.
His pacing is also excellent, keeping it slow and measured for most of the book, revealing things as they need revealing but giving away no more than necessary. You get kept in the good sort of confusion all the way to the point where you aren’t, if that makes sense?
Essentially, I loved it. It was brilliantly written and completely enthralling, and I shall be intending to read the sequel once I’ve demolished some of my tower of book.
Next up, either the Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood (good writing and Classics references? Of course I’m interested) or The Bear and the Nightingale for book club. Which will it be? There, have your own, slightly rubbish mystery…
*Except vampires**. No, I don’t know why.
**Apart from the one time I had an adverse reaction to medication and wouldn’t leave my room because I was convinced the vampires were coming to get me. That was a weird hour.