I’ve read all three books of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and I still don’t know how to describe them. I heard about them after they won some fantasy award, but they’re not quite fantasy. They’re in part sci-fi, dystopian and mystery, but those labels don’t really mean much to the book. The people tasked with solving the puzzle of the mysterious Area X know that they’re never going actually solve the mystery. They’re just hacking away at what they can. And we readers do the same.
To fully review Acceptance, the final book in the trilogy (and can anyone actually explain this book??) we’re going to go back a bit.
Annihilation, the first book of the trilogy, introduces us to a team of explorers, sent to investigate the mysterious Area X, a piece of coastline that has somehow developed unexplainable physical properties. It was once open to all, but now is limited to small expeditions. This group is told told that they are the twelfth such mission. Right away, one of the explorers (known only as The Biologist) knows that something is up, especially after spending time in an abandoned lighthouse and a creepy tower (or is it a tunnel?) covered in strange writing.
The second book, Authority, introduces us to the Southern Reach, the shadowy bureaucracy tasked with sending failed expedition after failed expedition over into Area X. Even though they act like they understand what’s happening, the agency doesn’t even understand the basics of the area. In this book, we follow the newest director of the Agency, who has named himself Control. Not that he has any. The second book was about ratcheting up the tension, showing the reader that this trilogy is more than what the Biologist uncovered in Book 1.
Which brings us to Acceptance. It’s a fitting name, because by the end of the first chapter, I’d accepted that most of my questions wouldn’t be answered. There is no explanation for Area X. VanderMeer isn’t interested in wrapping up his story neatly. Instead, the story gets even more balls out bananas, adding people-who-aren’t-people, a kinda haunted lighthouse and some (maybe??) Lovecraftian aliens.
I’m not going to lie-these books are a little frustrating. VanderMeer isn’t interested in hooking in a casual reader. He wants the fanatics, the fans of Lost who populated message boards with intricate theories about the smoke monster. I know for a fact I’ve missed important stuff in this book, only because I only read it once (you best believe I’m going to rectify that soon). Not that a reread will particularly clarify what happened. If you’re not sure this series is for you, I’d give it a hard pass. But the dedicated reader will take a lot out of this chaotic, original and intricate series.