State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Of all the memorable scenes in Ann Patchett’s extraordinary outsiders-in-the-Amazon novel State of Wonder, the passage in which a small boy fights an anaconda might be the most brain-searing. As the protagonist, Dr Marina Singh, struggles to pull the snake from his body as it slowly squeezes away his life, the tail begins “to wrap around her wrist. It was a muscle like nothing she had ever encountered. It did not fight against her. It did not notice her.”
But then, it’s hard to pick just one: it’s a tale in which a Caesarean section is performed on a septuagenarian, and deep in a jungle alive with mosquitoes, a tribe lives free from malaria. That it all makes perfect sense, could be no other way, is testament to Patchett’s inventiveness and dexterity as a storyteller.
The boy in question is Easter, a deaf-mute abandoned by his tribe who has fetched up with the enigmatic, brilliant Dr Annick Swenson, like Marina an employee of pharmaceutical company Vogel. Eight years ago Swenson ventured into the wilds of Brazil to uncover the secrets of a hyper-fertile tribe, and she is yet to present her results. Increasingly impatient, Vogel has dispatched one Dr Anders Eckman to retrieve her, but as the novel opens, Marina receives a letter from Swenson announcing his death from fever.
Stricken both for herself – she and Eckman shared a laboratory for years – and for his wife and sons, and seeking respite from a tentative relationship with another, older colleague, Marina takes over Eckman’s mission to lure Swenson back.
The title may refer to many facets of this treasure-chest of a story: the boundless mysteries of this Amazonian settlement and the fecund Lakashi; the professional obsession that drives Swenson to subject herself to experimentation; the dream-state, a mixture of horror, fear, fascination and joy, that characterizes Marina’s experience in the jungle; and the reader’s absorption in a story of incomparable majesty.
Swenson’s two areas of research are counterpoints: her discoveries about the reasons for the prolonged fertility of Lakashi women (Marina is confronted by the sight of a heavily pregnant 70-something on more than one occasion, and the Lakashi birth rate is five times that of other tribes in the region) will be of enormous value in the West, where infertility is on the rise in some demographics.
Meanwhile, what this research has revealed about the unique local flora leads Swenson to discover an apparent natural inoculation against malaria, still a widely fatal disease in many tropical developing countries.
Patchett’s mastery of a world in which many writers have stumbled is perhaps the most notable aspect of this deeply impressive work. State of Wonder, in theme and nature, is subject to comparison with Joseph Conrad’s seminal Heart of Darkness, but its feminine perspective and distinctly 21st-century sensibility are among many marked differences between the two.
She creates heart-wrenching scenarios that are neither melodramatic nor unempathetic, merely human. The idiosyncrasies of the Lakashi are presented as no more peculiar than that of Swenson, and watching the latter’s impenetrable cloak fall, her secrets surface, is thrilling. As if infused with the seemingly magic plants she describes in her story, Patchett has put the human condition under a microscope and emerged with a novel of lasting greatness.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones