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June 3, 2011 10:06 pm

State of Wonder

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State of Wonder, Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 368 pages

 

For a literary novelist, Ann Patchett isn’t shy of drama and complex plots. A few pages into her Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto, armed terrorists were firing rounds into the ceiling of a lavish party and taking its guests hostage. Patchett’s new novel, State of Wonder, begins with the sort of set-up you would expect to find in a contemporary political thriller.

Marina Singh is a research scientist at Vogel, a Minnesotan pharmaceutical company. A letter to Vogel’s chairman, Mr Fox, breaks the news that Marina’s lab colleague, Anders Eckman, has died in the Amazon jungle. He had been sent there to investigate a new fertility drug being developed by the secretive Dr Swenson – Marina’s former mentor, known for her fierce tongue and uncompromising standards. Vogel has been funding Swenson for years, unable to resist her aim of isolating the fertility secret of the Lakashi tribe, whose womenfolk bear children into their sixties and seventies. Yet her failure to keep Vogel abreast of her findings makes the company nervous and when Eckman dies, the mystery deepens. Fox needs Marina to go into the Amazon to seek out the Lakashi for herself.

In the first half of the book, we follow Marina to Brazil, where she is disturbed by the loss of her luggage, including the phone that could get her out of trouble, the heat and the constantly biting, buzzing insects. But in a scene at the opera that sets up the powerful dynamic between the main characters, Swenson finally materialises and we feel her Kurtz-like sway over everyone around her. Marina follows her into the screeching jungle and so begins a transformation that isn’t so much about Marina losing herself to the natives as the reader losing himself to Swenson.

Patchett has enormous fun writing about the jungle – the moths with “wings the size of handkerchiefs”, a wrestling match with a 15-foot anaconda, and the Lakashi themselves who emerge en masse from the darkness with ululating voices and sticks of fire.

She has even more fun with the scientists, and the theme of science as a whole. “I remember the heads of the Hummocca [a neighbouring tribe who happen to be cannibals ... ] so vividly it was almost as if I had dissected one,” Swenson says without a flicker of a smile. We are constantly aware that within the community of Swenson’s research station, rationality and unsentimentality reign supreme.

One of Patchett’s great skills is in capturing the moment-by-moment psychology of her characters – the brain’s subtle mental and emotional shifts. When Marina first learns of Eckman’s death, we are told that in this instant she understood why people being informed of such things are often told to sit down: she experiences “a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles”.

Although this kind of stylistic precision was successful in Patchett’s Bel Canto, here, combined with the scientific subject matter, it is a bit much. Yet in the end, this book shares more with the luminous Bel Canto than one might imagine. Marina is eventually taken to see the Lakashi’s secret: dozens of women pressing themselves against trees “like a partner for a slow dance” and chewing the bark to extract a living compound that sustains their fertility. It is an unforgettably sensual and beautiful scene and it’s not surprising when 42-year-old, childless Marina takes up the habit too.

State of Wonder is ultimately concerned with transformation (Marina’s, Swenson’s, ours), and the dedication of the main characters to humanity rather than science – the magical, uplifting stuff that Ann Patchett fans have come to know and love.

Susan Elderkin is author of ‘The Voices’ (Fourth Estate)

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