2011, 353 p
I don’t often think of films while I’m reading a book, but I did this time. A few months back I went to see ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ (my short review here). I was rather nonplussed by the lack of plot in the movie at the time, but it complements this book beautifully.
Marina Singh is a 42-year old research scientist, working on cholesterol drugs for a pharmaceutical company. Like Barak Obama, she was the daughter of a white American mother and, in this case, an Indian graduate student who returned to India. When a research colleague, Anders, dies suddenly on the Brazilian Rio Negro, Marina is encouraged by her boss (with whom she is having a clandestine affair) and Anders’ widow, to go to find out what happened and, indeed whether Anders is even dead- something that his widow cannot believe. Anders himself had been sent by the pharmaceutical company to find out what happened too, but in this case the object of his enquiry was the intimidating Dr Swenson, who had been ensconced in the Brazilian jungle for years, working on a bark-based fertility potion observed amongst the Lakashi tribe. Lakashi women gave birth right throughout their lives: a burden to them, but a honey-pot to any Western pharmaceutical company catering to infertile Western women. Dr Swenson had been funded by the company to undertake her research in Brazil, but she was not forwarding her results or progress to them. Now that Anders had died, Marina was sent to follow up.
Marina knew, and feared Dr Swenson. She had encountered her during her hospital internship as a doctor, when Dr Swenson castigated her for a surgical error, prompting her to leave medicine for good. Now Marina meets her again, unsure whether Dr Swenson even remembers her. Dr Swenson has surrounded herself with protectors, intent on blocking the company’s inquiries. The doctors who work in her research program alternate between love and fear of her, and all the tribespeople obey her. Almost against her will, Marina finds herself being drawn into Dr Swenson’s orbit as well.
There are echoes of Conrad’s Kurtz here (can any book about the jungle ever escape parallels with Kurtz?) and it raises questions about the pharmaceutical industry and the ethics of fertility treatment in the face of other more urgent public health demands.
This book reminded me very much of Patchett’s earlier book Bel Canto which I read in 2002 and then again in 2014 for my bookgroup (but oddly enough, did not review in a blog post). Bel Canto, set in Latin America, involved a group of opera-lovers at a house concert being taken hostage by terrorists. There was an opera element in State of Wonder too, but the most striking similarity is that in both books the author placed a group of people in an isolated setting, feeling powerless but increasingly coming under the thrall of those exerting power over them. However, where in Bel Canto she managed to move between characters and fill them out, in a rather cinematic fashion, in this book there was really only one really robust and memorable character- Dr Swenson. The other doctors in the group never really emerged as individuals, and even Marina as the main character seemed rather ‘thin’. It’s not clear why Marina was satisfied enough with the affair with her significantly-older supervisor Mr Fox, and there were too many pages spent in the Brazilian metropolis of Manaus, where Marina was deflected from travelling to the jungle by a young married Australian couple, Mr and Mrs Bovender, who are house-sitting Dr Swenson’s city apartment. There is much attention paid to Marina’s vivid nightmares, induced by the anti-malarial medication Lariam, a plot detail which takes on more significance by the end of the book. It’s a relatively long book, and it meanders almost as much as the river that dominates the setting.
That said, I did find it rather compelling and did want to keep reading it. It was a book that was more rewarding during the act of reading, rather than thinking and discussing it afterwards. In this case, I arrived at bookgroup having quite enjoyed it, but by the time we’d finished pulling it apart, the ‘State of Wonder’ seemed a little less wondrous after all.
My rating: 7/10
Read because: CAE face-to-face bookgroup