State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Perfectly pitched Amazonian adventure – lyrical, menacing, scientifically feasible.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408818596

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

Anders Eckman is dead. The news has been delivered in the form an aerogram – remember those blue paper-cum-envelope things we used to use to write to foreign pen-pals when the notion of befriending a person you'd never met in a foreign country still seemed exotic?

This flimsy piece of paper was delivered to Eckman's employers. After all it was them that had sent him down to the Brazilian Amazon to find the enigmatic and evasive Dr Annik Swenson, and more precisely find out exactly how she was getting on with developing the drug that was costing the firm so much of their research budget.

Jim Fox is the personification of the drugs company. He takes the letter – if two paragraphs on an aerogramme counts as a letter – to his unacknowledged lover and long-term colleague of Eckman, Marina Singh. It falls to Marina to inform Eckman's wife and children, just as inevitably as it will fall to her to follow him into the swamps to find out what really happened.

As in all the best claustrophobic novels all of the key players are linked. Marina and Jim Fox are lovers. She and Eckman are friends and colleagues. She and Swenson were, once upon a time, student and teacher. Both have moved on since then. Marina because of a fatal accident that shifted her faith in herself, and Swenson because… well, no-one really knows how and why Swenson ended up fully-funded to investigate how and why the remote Amazonian tribeswomen continue to have babies long after any other human being would have settled happily into post-menopause… and whether in their secret lies something which could prove to be the magic wand for enhanced fertility around the world.

Award-winning Author is an accolade that can raise high hopes only to leave you three chapters in and wondering who the judges might have been. Not so with Patchett. I have not read any of her pervious much-praised output ( her second novel, Taft, captured the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in 1994, her third novel, The Magician's Assistant, was short-listed for the Orange Prize and earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship, then finally the next: Bel Canto, won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in 2002) but on the strength of State of Wonder I'm going to have to go back to the beginning and catch up on what I've missed.

State of Wonder is one of those perfect pieces that underline the futility of the writing-student-questioning about whether it is plot or character that matter most. It is plot, it is character, it is an overwhelming sense of place, it is atmosphere and it is the ability to bring all of these together into one harmonious whole and then to spin that whole out with perfect pitch and pace.

Patchett does it.

Marina has all the uncertainty needed of a heroine who must prove her worth, but also the background and fundamental strength of character that makes her actions entirely believable. Swenson's own story is equally meticulous and plausible – the holy grail that is within her grasp being cleverly devised to be one that the drugs companies probably would extend funds beyond the normal leeway of extravagance and academic freedom, while the one she is seeking is something else again. Even the absent Eckman is realised – at least in his last days of fever and delirium as evidenced in the few letters that made it home – as an ordinary scientist who found himself caught up in something at once exciting and debilitating, unnerving and beyond comprehension.

If there is a touch of Conrad's Africa in the river boats and the unknown tribes that haunt the waterways there can be no criticism – the sheer vastness of Amazonia leaves much of it undiscovered into the 21st century – and where we don't know, we invent, and usually we invent things that terrify us. Patchett is at pains however to draw her wild inventions back into the realms of the possible. Having her main cast of characters, whether in the Minnesota lab or the Lakashi research station, to be of scientific mind allows even the most fanciful notions to be re-drawn in terms of mycology or sociology or medicine or pharmacology, to be given a sheen of realism.

In another place that sheen might be called "glamour" and, blunt descriptions of snakes and blood and thorn-scratches and insect bites and luggage-thieves and breech births on the jungle floor and even the occasional cannibal all swum through by a river the colour of badly made coffee (where you're glad you cannot see what is beneath the water), do nothing to remove the romantic viewpoint, but the pervading secrecy, the fear and closeness of the jungle, echoed in the mysterious guardians in the city, taints the whole with an air of menace. The balance works.

There are no real sudden plot-shocks along the way, the twists are as slow and languorous as the river itself, but even so you cannot be quite sure exactly what is around the bend.


Deserves to be read in one or two sittings, somewhere tropical and sweat-inducing, to the slow whine of mosquitoes… but if all you've got is a wet Sunday afternoon in the northern hemisphere, it won't take you long to conjure the rest.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion If this gives you a wondering about what it’s really like in the depths of Amazonia you could do worse that to pick up Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett.

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