State of Wonder by Ann Patchett review

by Jane Westaway / 30 July, 2011
Too much interior journey leavesAnn Patchett’s State of Wonder meandering and plodding.
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder opens in the controlled, gleaming environment of a US pharmaceutical lab. Here, Dr Marina Singh is employed to research that well-trodden medical territory, cholesterol. And here she discovers her dear colleague Anders has died and been buried somewhere in the depths of the Amazon rain forest.

Dispatched to Brazil by the boss who is also her lover, Marina is charged, as was Anders before her, with tracking down loose-cannon employee Dr Annick Swenson. Swenson has been living with a remote tribe for years, ostensibly working on a secret fertility research project, but has long since stopped reporting, let alone allowing herself to be located and supervised. She harshly repels all attempts to do so.

Anders’s death from a tropical illness is a secondary company concern. But Marina is driven by the desire to bring home any information she can to his stricken wife – who refuses to believe her husband is dead – and their three small sons.

Marina trained as a medical doctor before she became a pharmacologist. The cold but brilliant Swenson was not only the most impressive of her teachers, but the senior to whom she was reporting as an intern when she seriously injured a baby she was delivering. Marina’s resulting shame turned her from medicine to the safety of the lab.

Thus she flinches from the prospect of finding Swenson even as she is propelled deeper into the dangerous heart of the jungle – a journey of the heart and mind at least as dramatic as that of the body. Or at least one that is meant to be.

This is Patchett’s sixth novel, her fourth, Bel Canto, having launched her into the realms of the “acclaimed” by winning the 2002 Orange Prize. She is a thoughtful and imaginative writer. In her hands, the mysterious death of an employee in a ruthlessly competitive, ethically dodgy industry and a foray into hostile country by a heroine drawn against her will into life-threatening adventure promise something thriller-esque as well as literary.

Indeed, the denouement of the novel’s last 50 or so pages does wrap up these cloak-and-dagger elements in a brisk if somewhat unbelievable manner. But too many of the preceding 300 pages meander and plod. The slow pace springs from the over-writing that results from the author’s determination to put Marina’s interior journey centre-stage at all times. A strong narrative point of view is one thing, but all the action and context is relentlessly filtered through Marina’s hyperactive brain. She never stops remembering, dreaming, analysing and speculating.

The effect is to push away the reader and render Marina curiously impassive in the face of all she is up against – from two incidents of lost luggage that finally, and symbolically, reduce her to tribal dress, to the horror of every creeping, crawling, crushing creature the jungle has to offer.

Even as a hostile tribe rains poisoned arrows on her head, she is thinking, “This … was the outcome of the letter Mr Fox had brought into the lab that she and Anders had shared: this moment, these arrows, this heat and jungle”. Let’s just keep our eye on those arrows, shall we?

By focusing so intently on Marina’s personal story, Patchett passes up the opportunity to examine bigger questions, such as how much scientists should work for the general enhancement of human knowledge and how much for their employer, and the ethics of research on primitive subjects ignorant of their own participation. Alongside these, Marina’s personal preoccupations seem small and self-indulgent.

For all that, Patchett goes a long way towards conveying the oppressive presence of the Amazon jungle, and the gulf between its people and the northern intruders. If only she had explained less and trusted her reader more, this would have been a memorable book.

STATE OF WONDER, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, $36.99).

Jane Westaway is a writer and co-editor of New Zealand Books.

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