(Please note: this review will, out of some necessity, traffic in some minor spoilers from Books 1 & 2 – but will try to steer clear of anything terribly large.)
The Review: When I was young – probably couldn’t’ve been older than 11 or 12 – I visited some family on the coast of Maine and we drove out onto this island for dinner. During the dinner, a fog rolled in off the water and the land around us disappeared – and when we walked outside, it was as though the world was suddenly being re-revealed to us as the fog drifted back out to sea. That sensation, a mix of wonder and terror and curiosity that I’m not sure I’ve ever quite experienced since, is the best way to describe my reaction to Acceptance and arguably to the Southern Reach trilogy as a whole.
We pick up the story, intriguingly enough, in the second person – and we’re warped back to the end of Annihilation, seeing a pivotal encounter between the biologist and the psychologist from the point of view of the latter. The story then proceeds to jump between four particular points of view: Control (aka John Rodriguez, of Authority), the former director of Southern Reach, Ghost Bird (the returned biologist), and the lighthouse keeper from before Area X was Area X. Time begins to develop a non-linear feel as we leapfrog between the ‘present’ and various points in the past – either during the lead-up to Annihilation or in the lead-up to Area X’s… arrival? Appearance? It’s difficult to say, and not just for fear of spoilers. The tenses bounce between second and third and first and the reader gets caught up in a sort of breathless maelstrom, grabbing pieces of information as they zip by and attempting to make the puzzle make sense rather on the fly. It’s a delightful challenge and the puzzle, I’m pleased to say, outfoxed me: there were pieces that went in places I never could’ve dreamed and I was delighted to discover their true meanings.
As for meanings… in any concluding installment of a trilogy, the open / unanswered questions must be addressed – in one way or another – and most readers will seek some kind of resolution to be quote-unquote satisfied. And I have to be honest, I was genuinely surprised by just how much resolution we ended up getting. The final scenes of Acceptance are trilogy-enders in a sort of classic mold, harkening back to everything from Lord of the Rings to the Indiana Jones movies: there is closure, to an extent, even if things haven’t been explained to your particular satisfaction (ed. note: they were, to mine) and there’s a little bit of riding-off-into-the-sunset and there’s even a little bit of deeply felt emotional release. As I read the Epilogue, I was very conscious of a deep sighing release of air coupled with a slight tension in my chest – the sort of thing that feels almost more cathartic than actual tears. I was so upset to let this universe go but at the same time I was profoundly satisfied with the conclusion that was presented to me. There was no deus ex machina, there was no “oh, it was really XYZ the whole time”, none of that – there are still questions and there is room for an imagination to run wild (pun lightly intended), but there is also very definitely an ending. I’d say it’s almost cinematic, which will hopefully make the team prepping the trilogy for film happy.
But what else, really, can I say at this point? The lens continued to widen through these books – from a very specific pinpoint in time and space, to a wider look at roughly that same time, to a broader look at that place throughout time. And each time, the assuredness of the author was felt by me as a reader. I was able to open myself up to the utter weirdness of these stories, the things that I almost couldn’t even picture because they were so strange, because I trusted that the author knew where he was going. Jeff does not have a showy style, per se – he’s not doing things where you’d say “oh, that’s a Jeff VanderMeer sentence” – but he has a self-confidence that soaks into each page. It lets you know, subtly, that this is all headed towards… something. And that something does exist and it is there and we’ll get there soon. But where readers give themselves over to fantasy epics or, in the past, to serialized real-world novels quite easily, it’s a harder thing to ask someone to jump into something where your mind is going to be bent. We’ve been burned before, more often than not, but mind-bending stories that collapsed under the weight of their own weirdness. But Jeff escapes from that curse by (as it appeared to my mind, anyway) simply just allowing himself to go where the weirdness needed him to go. It’s a lesson that a lot of other writers – not just of Weird fiction but of any fiction, at all – would do well to embrace: let your particular flag fly and trust that your imagination is gonna get you there. Your readers will follow.
Rating: 5+ out of 5 (for the book) // a retrospective 6 out of 5 (for the trilogy as a whole). I look forward to reading the trilogy again in a single fell swoop, perhaps later this fall. I want to look more deeply into the things that seemed to echo from book to book, the phrases and ideas. And quite plainly, I want to revisit the world. But for now, I have a feeling of contentment that is all too rare with series. The story that was told, concluding here, was told exactly how it needed to be told. Everything about it feels right. To so skillfully thread the needle of mystery and revelation is a success in and of itself – but to also add so much new information without overwhelming the reader is yet another kind of success. I could go on at length, but I might start veering into spoilers… so, suffice it to say: what an exceptional book and an exceptional trilogy. And one that will linger, hauntingly, in my memories for a good long while.