9 May 2012

Review 32: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

"Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women forever. Dr Annick Swenson's work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders's colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders's wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend's steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest. What Marina does not yet know is that, in this ancient corner of the jungle, where the muddy waters and susurrating grasses hide countless unknown perils and temptations, she will face challenges beyond her wildest imagination. Marina is no longer a student, but only time will tell if she has learnt enough."

A careful and intelligent novel about science and human nature, I enjoyed reading a novel with such interesting, unpredictable characters and subtle themes. There are some heavy themes here but Patchett is rarely heavy-handed and manages to avoid it being an 'issues' book with a beautiful story and well written, realistic heroine. The settings are the other star here, Patchett's descriptions of both Minnesota and in particular Brazil are incredibly evocative, she creates worlds that spring up around you in beautiful detail. Also, I adore the title and the paperback cover (I wish I had hung on for it.)

First Line: "The news of Anders Eckman's death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope."

Why I read it: I had it on my Amazon wishlist and when it was announced as being on the Orange Prize longlist I bought it. (It has since been announced as being on the shortlist).

Who I would recommend it for: Keen readers who look for careful writing and situations that escape the moral black and white. Fans of Kazuo Ishiguro, A. S. Byatt or Jeffrey Eugenides.

Marina Singh is a scientist. She trained as a medical doctor but moved into the more clinical and predictable world of lab pharmaceuticals after a Caesarean delivery goes wrong during her residency. The company she works for, Vogel, is sponsoring Dr. Annick Swenson to research a fertility drug with the Lakashi tribe in the Amazon whose women continue to get pregnant and deliver healthy babies well into old age. The eccentric Dr. Swenson is highly uncommunicative though and Marina's affable colleague, Anders, has been sent to track her down, leaving his wife and young family behind in Minnesota. The novel opens with the company receiving a curt airmail from Dr. Swenson informing them that Anders had died from a fever and has been buried in the Amazon. Coerced by Anders' distraught widow and the company's director, and Marina's lover, Jim Fox, who is still concerned as to the progress of the research, Marina sets off, first to Manaus and then to the Lakashi village in the Brazilian jungle to try and find out what happened to Anders and what Dr. Swenson is doing with the company money.

Marina clearly does not want to go but feels a sense of duty to both parties forces her despite the elements we know, as readers, make her horribly unsuited to the journey. The malaria medicine gives her horrendous nightmares, ones that echo the nightmares she had when she had to take malaria to visit her father in India. She also has a history with Dr. Swenson that no-one at Vogel knows about, and that Marina believes Dr. Swenson herself has forgotten about with her brusque, impersonal manner. Once in Brazil, Marina meets Dr. Swenson again as well as the Lakashi tribe and becomes involved in the work going on. To tell you more would spoil the enjoyment of the story but it develops in a satisfying but not predictable manner.

There are a lot of strengths to this novel but the three that stood out for me are the wonderfully created characters, the incredibly evocative settings and the interesting and not often explored in fiction themes. Patchett's characters are wonderful, in lesser hands many of them would stray into caricatures but Patchett writes them beautifully and they all have hidden depths which are hinted at or explored. Patchett also doesn't seem to feel the need to trap characters into heroes or villains for the most part and therefore we get a lovely patchwork of believable characters in a surreal jungle world. Marina herself is a superb heroine, flawed in ever so human ways, but very sympathetic in her struggles in Brazil. She confesses to preferring the static and predictable world of data and facts and her journey into a situation where nothing is clear cut is carefully navigated. The supporting characters are equally wonderful, the free-spirited couple who take care of Dr. Swenson's practicalities in Manaus, the deaf tribal boy, Easter, who becomes attached to Marina and the frustrating, unorthodox and charismatic Dr. Swenson. There is also Dr. Rapp, Dr. Swenson's predecessor who originally discovered the Lakashi who provides us with this wonderful quotes,
        "Gentlemen, close your books and listen. We have nothing less than the world to consider."

The settings are magnificent, particularly the descriptions of the dry and grimy Manaus and the tropical, ever-shifting jungle. As someone who is quite definitely not a lover of bugs, I found the descriptions of the jungle almost uncomfortable to read as Marina describes the tarantulas moving across the rough paths and the spider webs hanging in the trees. It thoroughly put me off ever venturing into a tropical rainforest. But whether you find this horrifying or exciting, you cannot help but be moved by the depictions. Patchett enjoys detail, and whilst the wildlife in the jungle unnerved me enough, her description of one medical procedure that Marina is forced to undertake without clean equipment on anaesthetic turned my stomach somewhat but I also couldn't read fast enough to find out what the outcome would be.

The final thing I want to highlight is that unusual themes that Patchett chooses to bring to life, whilst I know that drug testing, scientific responsibility and medical ethics do crop up in fiction, they normally seem to be in thrillers and crime drama rather than careful literary works. They are also not subjects that would normally attract me to a novel but I found the consideration of them thought-provoking in a subtle way. Patchett does not hammer home broad ethical messages but suggests and insinuates and gently provokes. Marina and Dr. Swenson discuss whether they should get involved in medical issues for the tribes outside their research and we are gently provided with details that show that the Lakashi tribe do not really understand the tests that are going on and normally provide their bodies as test subjects in exchange for cola. I enjoyed the way that Patchett keeps the focus of her story close to her characters and resists the urge to provide a wider context and historical examples which would diminish the magic of our story.

I thought that this book was superb but it didn't have that indescribable element that makes you fall for a book. It was readable and engaging without being a book I thought about a lot whilst I wasn't reading it. I really appreciated the wonderful way in which Patchett created characters and settings with such skill and I was eager to find out what decisions Marina would up making but I was slightly frustrated by the lack of emotional attachment I developed to most of the characters and would have enjoyed a slightly stronger emotional core to the novel. I would highly recommend this.

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