Jun 17, 2011
STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett
This is the background to the arrival of a letter that ignites Orange Prize-winning American novelist Patchett’s exhilarating if overheated work. Some weeks earlier, Anders had been sent to the Amazon to report on the work of a reclusive but brilliant doctor, Dr Swenson, who has spent decades studying a tribe whose womenfolk continue to bear children into their seventies. The company which employs Marina and Anders pays for her research, and is frustrated at the time it’s taking the doctor to produce results. Anders needs to find out why she is taking so long. The letter, however, contains dreadful news. It is from Dr Swenson, informing them Anders has died.
Marina is a homebody, attached to Minnesota, despite her Indian heritage, as if by chains. It is a measure of her fidelity to her friend and his grieving widow, and of her innate biddability that when Mr Fox asks her to go to Brazil and learn what happened, and how the uncommunicative doctor’s work is going, she agrees. What follows is a compellingly taut story in which a series of adventures containing vivid individuals throws up profound revelations.
Patchett is a highly empathetic writer, subtle in her characterisations and in her portrayal of strong attachments, unbidden feelings and the complications that attend both.
Marina emerges as a truly delightful and admirable heroine, a woman whose story one would like to follow beyond this book. As she investigates Anders’s death, she is obliged to confront her own past when, as a promising young doctor, she made a terrible mistake. That incident not only crippled her professionally but, it appears, emotionally too. This trauma is linked to Dr Swenson, which makes Marina’s trip doubly courageous.
One can’t but wonder, though, why a woman who willingly braves the Amazonian interior, with its cannibal tribes, its alphabet of snakes, spiders and insects, and a fanatical doctor, would have been so easily derailed in her earlier life.
The Amazonian forest is as unwelcoming as Dr Swenson: “At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find.” Yet it is in the terrifying isolation of this wildly dangerous environment that Marina proves what she is made of.
Here, as in other novels, Patchett explores the nature of love and duty, and the huge responsibilities those small words carry. A pellucid, droll writer, she reveals her Tennessee upbringing in a penchant for drama that verges on the gothic. Where she fails to convince, for this reader at least, is in her portrait of the Amazon settlement. This setting, with its enigmatic tribe and their peculiar habits, gives rise to such extreme turns of event, it’s as if one has crossed a line from literary fiction into boy’s own territory. Added to which, the hinge on which Patchett’s plot turns is not hard to predict. This does not spoil one’s pleasure, but it diminishes the novel’s power. It is no small feat, then, for Patchett to surmount her over-egged plot to create a tender, affecting and memorable novel.
at 12:40 PM