Archive for December 23rd, 2011

December 23, 2011

Ann Patchett, State of Wonder

My review of this ran in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Patchett is generally a fantastic writer but I certainly wouldn’t consider this among her best work, even if the depiction of the tribes had not put me off horribly.



At one point in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder the main character, Marina, attends the opera in Manaus, Brazil. It is a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Marina instantly thinks of it as her own story. Like Orpheus, she has been sent into hell to bring back someone from the dead.

Officially, Marina is in Brazil to gather information about the work of the elusive Dr Annick Swenson. Swenson’s research into a drug that would drastically extend the years of women’s fertility is funded by Marina’s employers. She has been living among an Amazonian tribe whose women are able to have children long after the age when most women have passed menopause; yet few reports have been sent back. Anders Eckman, Marina’s colleague, had previously been sent to report on Swenson’s work. But Eckman appears to have mysteriously, and his wife Karen has asked his colleague to find the truth.

Marina is forced to stay in Manaus for a large part of the book; with no knowledge of the tribe’s whereabouts, she must wait for Dr Swenson to come to her. This section, filled with disease and insect-filled hotel rooms and all the horrors of a run-down city that is not of the first world, could easily be an enormous cliché. Instead, these are some of the most powerful chapters of the book. If this is a story about a descent into Hell, this prolonged wait, with no end in sight, is distinctly purgatorial. Marina is ill for a significant portion of her stay, and her illness adds a fevered intensity to her perspective, giving her time in the city the feel of a myth. It’s even tempting to look at the Bovenders, the hippie couple who guard Dr Swenson from inquisitive visitors, as some unlikely two-headed Cerberus.

In addition to the Orpheus and Eurydice theme, there’s much of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Marina’s journey into the jungle. Unfortunately this also means that State of Wonder replicates some of Conrad’s novel’s flaws. The natives are reduced in the main to props and scenery against which the north American characters’ drama is played out. The Lakashi (the tribe among whom Swenson resides) exist as an undifferentiated mass of theft, inappropriate touching and fascination with long hair. A neighbouring tribe have the reputation of killing strangers on sight. The only ‘native’ character to escape this treatment is Easter, a young boy whom first Anders then Marina come to love. Yet even he is reduced to the site for a philosophical debate about moving people out of their contexts.

This apparent racial homogenisation is interesting in the context of Marina’s own relationship with her racial identity. She is half-Indian (her name is Marina Singh) and has visited her father in India multiple times in the past. Marina’s nightmares, when they come, are all of India, and of being lost in a sea of its crowds of bodies (homogenous in her dreams, “their sweat and perfume, the sharp scent of spice carried in the smoke of vendors’ fires and the bitter smell of marigolds strung into garlands”). If this is passable at all, it is because Marina’s dreams are from the perspective of a small child.

Yet she also worries about the ways in which her Indian ancestry causes her to be singled out. In Brazil she realises that she fits in physically in ways that she cannot at home; “she was able to pass in Manaus the way she was never able to pass in Minnesota”. The result of this is that Marina too is vulnerable to the racial assumptions to which her perspective in this book subjects the Lakashi. In one fascinating scene she is mistaken for one of them and becomes an unwilling part of a show put on for white tourists.

Many of State of Wonder’s concerns are ethical ones. Central to the plot is the question of the extent to which the drug company that finances Swenson’s research is entitled to direct or monitor it. In the beginning Marina is wholly with her employer (she is also in a romantic relationship with her boss) – and as the narrative is written from her perspective, so is the reader. Yet Dr Swenson turns out to be more compelling than expected, and her reasoning is hard to dismiss.

State of Wonder is an odd title for a book in which the things one might reasonably expect to be wondrous are all but ignored. The excitement of the science and the grandeur of the Amazon are barely present when compared to Marina’s far realer thoughts of Minnesota. Patchett’s characters are vivid and their relationships finely drawn. Yet they are not this book’s focus. State of Wonder is an accomplished book, but lacks some of the power of Patchett’s earlier work.