A Soft-centred Heart of Darkness

This is my review of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

The reputation of the award-winning "Bel Canto" inspired me to read this novel.

The theme is promising. Marina, a doctor turned researcher for Vogel, a US pharmaceuticals manufacturer, is sent to Brazil to persuade the eccentric Dr. Svenson to submit details of her progress on what could be an important new fertility drug, based on studies with the remote Lakashi tribe where women seem capable of childbirth well into old age. Marina has also promised to find out more about the death of Anders, the colleague who was sent on the same mission but died of a fever in the jungle.

It is soon clear that this is by design a slow-paced book focused on detailed descriptions of people's feeling and interactions, such as the painful business of telling Karen Anders that her husband has died and been buried somewhere in the depths of the Brazilian rainforest, leaving her with three young children. There is also a strong evocation of place, such as the unbearable heat of Manaus, and the vast, anonymous scale of the rainforest, teeming with unfamiliar and often hostile life, so that Marina realises she has crossed the line away from civilisation not on leaving Manaus, but when penetrating the solid line of undifferentiated trees close-packed along the banks of a remote tributary.

There are a few good scenes, as when Marina, mistaken for a native because of her half-Indian parentage, consents to dance with the locals because it is "somehow less humiliating, less disrespectful" to do this than simply to stand with the other tourists watching them.

However, by Chapter 6 I began to consider giving up, and only motivated myself to read on by analysing the deficiencies in the style: the plywood cast of minor characters, the often stilted dialogue, the wordy descriptions which at times seem either banal or do not quite ring true.

Two-thirds in, the plot picks up with a startling revelation which I failed to anticipate, and then builds up to a satisfying climax which redeems the book, despite a few flaws. In the process, it raises, although does not explore in any depth, some interesting social and ethical issues. Are the researchers exploiting the natives, or rediscovering from them a better way of living, close to nature, accepting fate in the form of the attendant risks from poisonous snakes or lack of access to medicines?

Overall verdict: interesting plot, limited, soft-centred style, inadequate to the task.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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