So, moving from books I really don’t like, to a novel that I really did. I don’t tend to read stories about the Amazon, or books that have medical themes, so the fact that I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder in a state of enthrallment says a great deal to me about the brilliance of the writing. This is a novel about clashing cultures, about the dangerous wildness of nature and the uptight, mercenary desire for control at the heart, still, of Western civilisation; it’s also about the cold calculating ethics of science in conflict with the imperious, unethical demands of capitalism. And like all good novels it’s about love – what we do for it, and what we do with it. All this plus anacondas, magical drugs, lost tribes and profound philosophical issues! Yes, this novel is as packed as the jungle it evokes so vividly.
Somewhere in this jungle works Dr Annick Swenson, an esteemed ethnobiologist turned gynaecologist, who is developing a drug that would represent a little miracle in fertility. It’s such a potentially important – and lucrative – drug that the pharmacology company, Vogel, is happy to present her with an open chequebook and as much time as she needs. Only of course they never meant for her to disappear into the heart of the Amazon without sending a word on her progress. After two years of silence, Mr Fox sends Anders Eckman into the jungle to find out what’s going on. When the book opens, he’s received a curt missive from Dr Swenson telling him that Eckman is dead.
Marina Singh is Mr Fox’s lover, Anders colleague, and a friend of his wife, Karen. Karen doesn’t believe Anders is dead, and Mr Fox really wants to know how that drug is coming along. Between the two of them, the compliant Marina puts herself in a situation that terrifies her. She is a wonderful creation, the obedient good girl, who has repeatedly chosen the small, safe and insufficient path in life, particularly since an unfortunate accident during her intern days made her abandon gynaecology for good in favour of doing dull things with statins. That there is a depth of unacknowledged feeling in Marina is readily apparent when the anti-malaria drug she starts to take in preparation for her trip gives her screaming nightmares, the same nightmares she realises, that dogged her visits to her Indian father in infancy. In fact, it’s clear from the moment that she arrives in a heat-soaked Manaus, with the entire insect population regarding her as a snack plate, that this faintly mythic quest to locate a mad scientist and bring back her colleague from the underworld is going to test her to the limits of her capabilities. It’s going to crack her open and put her strengths and weaknesses on display. It is going to bring to the surface every issue that she has so far managed to keep battened down.
The thing is, Marina hasn’t been entirely truthful to anyone about her relationship with Annick Swenson. Swenson was her teacher back in her gynaecology days, and she had an important role to play in the accident that altered the course of Marina’s life. Annick Swenson is one of the best fictional scientists I think I’ve ever read, that ferocious teacher who terrified her students and left them in awe of her genius, the single-minded researcher whose dogged pursuit of answers is both admirable and fainly inhuman, and a woman whose own competence and efficiency leaves her with little but contempt for the hopeless, messy meanderings of most ordinary folk. The encounter between Marina and her former teacher is beautifully played out in the everyday trauma of the jungle, and unexpected transitions take place, as Marina finds her courage, and Dr Swenson is forced back into unusual vulnerability.
I read this as a book, not so much about states of wonder, but about estates and property, and the cut-throat question of who owns what in one of the few places left on earth where money doesn’t rule. Dr Swenson has discovered the Lakashi tribe, whose women have unlimited fertility, and the intellectual property that results from this is fraught with conflict. Vogel naturally believe they have bought everything that appertains to it – scientists, tribe members, drugs, the works. Only Annick Swenson has other ideas, not least as to whether women own the right to reproduce into later life. And if she revealed the location of her tribe to anyone, then the chances are that their lives would be destroyed as corporations, drug lords and rival tribes would desecrate the jungle. Dr Swenson’s madness, however, is to presume that the outcome of highly significant research exerts its own rights over ordinary mortals, who have a duty to surrender their individual will to the greater cause. It is most intriguing that in the middle of this, the woman sent to cut a swathe through this tangle of rights and property is Marina, who can’t even manage to keep hold of her suitcases. Marina, who can barely keep a handle on her own desires. In the end, though, it will be the gentle humanism of renouncing and letting go that will prove stronger than the will to control and master.
I thought this was an excellent book, a gripping story that raised all sorts of fascinating questions about scientific research without offering heavy handed answers, and a brilliant character study of two very different women hacking through their rich, dangerous and yet magical dark continent.