State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of wonder

Published: 2012 by Bloomsbury
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “Hope is a horrible thing, you know. I don’t know who decided to package Hope as a virtue because it’s not. It’s a plague. Hope is like walking round with a fishhook in your mouth and someone just keeps pulling it and pulling it.”

This is a challenging book both in terms of its pacing and the mighty ethical questions with which it grapples, but it’s well worth a read. Dr Annick Swenson is a field researcher working in the Brazilian rainforest, studying a tribe whose women continue to bear  children long into old age. She is being funded, lavishly, by a pharmaceutical company to produce a miracle fertility drug, but progress is slow and Dr Swenson is becoming increasingly elusive. When her colleague Anders – sent to the jungle to report on the project’s progress – is reported dead in rather ambiguous circumstances, the scene is set for Patchett’s protagonist, Dr Marina Singh, to make the trip herself. Singh undertakes the trip burdened with a number of conflicting interests: her own associations (professional and personal) with the chairman of the company; a promise to Anders’ widow to find his body and the truth about his demise; memories of her previous student/teacher relationship with Dr Swenson and the lingering demons of her childhood trips to India to see her largely absent father. As even this brief synopsis shows, this is a complex and multi-layered book that deals with some weighty issues. Patchett does not shy away either from discussing the ethics of the all too lucrative IVF industry and whether, in an already overpopulated world, the drug they are trying to produce should really be considered a miracle or an abomination – a question that does not get asked enough.

The first third of the book is slow: there are all those strands to introduce, and even once she gets as far as Manaus there is a lot of waiting around as Marina struggles to locate Dr Swenson. Patchett’s protagonist is also suffering from the side-effects of her anti-malaria medication, which adds a certain level of soporific unreality to her perceptions. I am rarely a fan of dream sequences in books which can so easily seem tedious and unconvincing. The idea that Marina’s nightmares are a result of lariam made them a far more interesting and integral prospect but I still felt that these paragraphs were among the weakest in the novel. The slowness of the opening is, I’m sure, deliberate, and it’s worth persevering as once Marina is on her way into the jungle the pace changes completely. Patchett evokes the beauty, danger, and above all the strangeness of the Amazon in a way that is truly mesmerising and that only appears more kaleidoscopic in comparison to the stagnancy of earlier chapters. Twists abound too, some of which I had anticipated and a few of which left me breathless.

State of Wonder reminded me of Patchett’s award-winning Bel Canto, in the way that both novels evoke the beauty of unexpected situations and the pulse of freedom that can flow when normal social routines are suspended. Both novels also end in a way that feels slightly rushed but in the case of State of Wonder this was in keeping with the novel’s continually escalating pace. To read this novel is to take a walk on the wild side, both in the way that the narrative transports you into the steamy heart of the rainforest and in the way that it is not afraid to needle, albeit gently, the dangerous myth of fertility at any cost that Western culture is so keen to perpetuate.

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