Ann Patchett’s last novel, Run, her first after the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto, was targeted with the pretty weird criticism that it didn’t feature any unlikeable characters. There weren’t any clear antagonists and therefore, I guess, nobody that the readers could align themselves against. Now, as much as I like a sleazy goon or a murderous thief, I thought Run was superb – a beautiful exploration of family love and grief. Who says you need a resident bastard to make your fiction compelling? And I think State of Wonder is cut from the same cloth – a quiet, poignant portrait of mourning and confused love, in which the villains aren’t so villainous and the victims become heroes. Patchett’s prose is wonderful and the book is set in the Amazonian jungle. What’s not to like?
The story is pretty simple. Marina Singh’s friend and colleague, Anders Eckmann, has been sent by their employer, pharmaceutical company Vogel, into the Brazilian jungle to find Dr Annick Swenson, an ethnobiologist who’s been down there on Vogel’s payroll for years, researching a tribe in which the women continue to bear children right into very old age and supposedly developing a fertility drug. When Dr Swenson sends word that Anders has died in the jungle, his disbelieving widow back in Minnesota begs Marina to travel to Brazil and find out what happened. Marina’s boss (and lover) is eager to discover exactly what Dr Swenson’s actually up to, and so Marina, pretty reluctantly, sets off. After a miserable spell in Manaus trying to trace the research team’s whereabouts, she finally reaches the jungle and all her expectations are upset. I’m not going to tell you what happens beyond this – let’s just say that the plot is slight but fascinating, and it’s the unfolding characterization that makes this book sing.
First up we’ve got Marina, a smart and observant pharmacologist who carries a huge, unspoken burden of guilt about an accident that happened when she was a gynaecological medical resident. She’s struggling with an illicit relationship and by no means wants to take off into the jungle, but she’s not content to let her friend’s death go unquestioned. Marina’s the everywoman here; the filter for the reader and a vehicle for his curiosity, and a very effective one, too, as we get to see the jungle in all its beauty and horror through her eyes. Then there’s Annick Swenson, a brutally intelligent and determined scientist who’s apparently willing to sacrifice herself and others for her research. Dr Swenson’s the nominal bad guy, Patchett’s Kurtz, the one who must be tamed and brought to account – but as the novel develops, you see how subtle a portrayal this really is and how Swenson is as nuanced and human a character as Marina. Again, no spoilers, but it’s Annick Swenson’s tragedy that’ll gnaw away at me long after I’ve put the book down. Alongside these two and their contentious relationship, we’ve got Easter, a deaf boy found and raised by Swenson, and the Bovenders, State of Wonder’s comic relief – a bohemian couple who incompetently attempt to guard the secret of the camp’s location and live in terror of Dr Swenson’s disapproval. Plus, of course, there’s the other scientists and the Lakashi, Patchett’s fictional tribe. You’ve always got the danger of patronage in these set-ups – the Western scientists condescending to the so-called primitive tribes – but that’s not evident here; all of Patchett’s various characters are presented with dignity.
As far as the arc of the novel is concerned, Patchett’s not one to follow convention. Reversing the usual island-paradise-turned-nightmare Lord of the Flies scenario, she shows us how the hostile jungle becomes manageable and how love and respect and goodness can flourish in the most unforgiving of situations. Marina, like the other scientists, finds her priorities have changed once she reaches the rudimentary jungle laboratory. Dr Swenson, against her own will, finds love and comfort in strange circumstances, and the tribes-people aren’t exploited – well, not very much, anyway. Amid scenes of violence and terror (attacks from anacondas and cannibals) there’s great hope and tenderness. At one point, ex-medical student Marina performs a caesarean section on a labouring mother and the whole village celebrate her success. The landscape is simultaneously claustrophobic and peaceful; Anders’ feverish letters home and Marina’s terror of getting lost (and her recurring nightmares) are counterbalanced by the serenity of the glade where the Lakashi eat their mysterious fertility-inducing tree-bark. You could probably criticize Patchett’s science, her obstetrics and pharmacology, but honestly, I don’t see the point. She’s not presenting it as an exploration of actual phenomena, and it works very well as a startlingly interesting fictional device.
Any Cop?: I loved reading this. I’ve been a fan of Patchett’s for years; her prose is elegant and readable and her characters believable. She’s been accused of ‘indefatigable niceness’ by the New York Times, who seem to reckon that this is a bad thing, but I think the strength of her work is that she can see the potential for redemption in anybody and she works this out through her characters. State of Wonder is full of tension and heartbreak, but ultimately it celebrates love. It’ll keep you up at night reading and it’ll probably make you cry just a little, but you’ll remember it for its unflagging spirit of hope and determination.