Saturday 31 October 2015

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is the story of Marina, a research scientist for the pharmaceutical company, Vogel, and it begins with the arrival of an aerogram letter. Her boss and secret lover, Mr Fox, shows her the letter which brings the news that her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman has died of fever in the Amazonian jungle. Anders had been sent to find out about the progress of a research project to develop a new fertility drug that would give older women the chance to have children.
    The project is headed by maverick scientist, Dr Annick Swenson, who years ago had been Marina's head surgeon in the obstetrics ward where Marina had made the terrible error that ended her hospital career. Marina has very mixed feelings about Dr Swenson, and is therefore not too happy about being sent to Brazil, at the request of both Mr Fox and Anders' wife, to learn the details of her colleague's death.
    Dr Swenson has been incommunicado, partly because of the remote location of the Amazonian tributary where she is carrying out her field work, and because she doesn't want any interference from Vogel until she has finished. Years have passed with very little communication, and the location of Dr Swenson is in doubt, but there is at least an apartment in Manaus, supplied by Vogel, which is somewhere for Marina to start.
    Marina arrives in sweltering Manaus from a chilly Minnesota to find her luggage has gone to Madrid. She discovers a helpful taxi driver and a not so helpful Australian couple who live in Dr Swenson's apartment and guard her privacy. It will be weeks, possibly months, before she can expect Dr Swenson to return for supplies. When she eventually does, and Annick reluctantly agrees that Marina can tag along with her back to the site of her research, the story really gets going.
    Marina finds herself battling nightmares caused by the anti-malarial drugs, and losing more of her clothing, so that she is attired in the loose shifts worn by the tribal women who are pregnant for most of their lives thanks to the addictive tree bark they nibble. She has to put up with Dr Swenson's unsympathetic and disparaging comments, but slowly finds favour. Does Annick even remember Marina from their former work together?
    Then of course there are the dangers inherent in the Amazon, from giant anacondas, to the poison arrows fired by a nearby tribe, the terrible heat and the very real danger of getting lost. Marina is a reluctant heroine, which makes her interesting and the situations she finds herself in are described with a dry humour.
    Patchett doesn't have to preach about the dangers of western interference on an endangered way of life, or the greed for pharmaceutical solutions to western problems, minor hiccups compared to those experienced by Amazonian people. Her story speaks for itself, but it does so with plenty of wit, action and many surprising revelations. It's a terrific read, and I was only sorry it had to end so soon. Happily there are other well-regarded novels by this author to enjoy, including Bel Canto which won an Orange Prize and which is also set in South America.

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