Friday 21 July 2017

Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Bloomsbury, €13.50

Lorraine Courtney

In the thick, dripping rainforests of the Brazilian Rio Negro, a scientist is conducting a cutting-edge research project which could change the reproductive lives of women forever.

But Dr Swenson is refusing to report back to her investors on her team's progress and they are running out of patience with the enigmatic scientist. The Minnesota pharmaceutical company backing the project dispatches Anders Eckman to investigate her work. Before he has completed his mission, a brief letter returns reporting his untimely death.

This enthralling start to Ann Patchett's new novel is the catalyst for a Heart of Darkness-style romp through the Amazon and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of scientific discovery. In Joseph Conrad's novel, a character named Kurtz escapes civilisation and domesticity (England and his wife) to go wild in the Congo. In State of Wonder, Swenson has escaped civilisation and domesticity (the Minnesota pharmaceutical company) to go wild in the Amazon.

Travelling upriver, each finds their proper domain in the jungle. Surrounded by "natives", each becomes a god, beholden to none of the normal rules of civilisation.

Such absolute abandon cannot go unpunished, however, and so they are both pursued by an agent from the society they have left behind. In State of Wonder, that agent is protagonist Marina Singh, who is tasked with tracking down the field team and finding out the real circumstances surrounding Ander's death. And so Marina, an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary world, embarks on a journey that will irrevocably alter her life, as she is confronted by dilemmas about scientific ethics, morality, life and love.

There are terrifying encounters with cannibals and gigantic anacondas but Swenson herself is more threatening than anything the jungle has to offer. She has discovered a tribe of women deep in the Brazilian Amazon who are eternally fertile and immune to malaria. However, she is determined to keep her team's methods and progress under wraps. Swenson has sacrificed a great deal for her work and ultimately asks similar sacrifices of Marina.

Patchett has long been a dab hand at taking unlikely plots and turning them into credible novels. Bel Canto was about an opera singer performing for a Japanese ambassadorial party in South America whose guests are all taken hostage in a coup attempt. What could have been the thickest of melodrama was, instead, somehow magical. In Run, Patchett conjured an Irish-Catholic Boston politician and the two African-American boys he adopted.

She manages to pull off a similar trick here with her crafting of larger-than-life characters and marrying the ordinary with the fantastic. The characters are wonderfully drawn and Patchett weaves together numerous subplots to form a book of breathtaking scope that is always realistic.

Patchett's other great power is her knack of transporting her reader to exotic worlds. Her Amazon is lushly imagined, a tangle of jungle: "All Marina could see was green. The sky, the water, the bark of the trees: everything that wasn't green became green." In the evening, "the stars spread their foam over the night sky" and the jungle soundtrack is the "grind of insects' wings, over the endless repetition of frogs croaking".

Tribal life is evoked in all its chaos and vitality. "There were women washing clothes in the river and washing children, women gathering sticks into baskets and braiding the hair of girls, every movement they made exposed to the merciless sunshine. There was a large assortment of toddlers slapping the water with their hands and crawling babies."

Patchett succeeds in leading her reader into her own heart of darkness in this thrilling, unsettling and riveting read.

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