Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is the story of a quest. When Marina Singh’s lab partner Anders dies in Brazil, her boss and his widow both ask her to follow in his footsteps and look for answers. Their employer has been financing pharmacological research on extending fertility, the “Lost Horizon of American ovaries.” The researcher is Annika Swenson, an implacable iconoclastic teacher and researcher who had been Marina’s professor years before. Swenson refuses to provide progress reports so Anders was dispatched for answers and how he’s dead.
This is no mystery story, though. It’s an exploration of the themes of imperialism, of what happens to people of the modern era when they interact with isolated, traditional cultures, what happens when we go to the heart of darkness, because that’s what this story really is about. Marina is Marlow going down the river. She even has to wait in Manaus as Marlow waited at the Company’s Outer Station. There’s a company agent to tell her how wonderful Swenson is, and there are the bohemian Bovenders who praise Swenson as rhapsodically as Kurtz was praised.
Like Marlow, civilization is stripped away from Marina. She loses her luggage, not once, but twice. When she arrives, a child urinates on blouse and the women give her one of their shifts, she thinks they intend to clean her clothes, but they are never returned. No wonder when they stop at neighboring village where tourists gather, she is grabbed by tourists to pose for pictures with a “native”. Like Kurtz, Swenson is dogmatic, absolutely certain of her judgment, and seemingly all-powerful. She claims to have “tamed” the Lakashi without irony or self-reflection. Both Marina and Swenson suffer illness. Marina and Marlow even struggle with how much they can and should tell others of what they learn.
Of course, Marlow went up the Congo and Marina goes up the Amazon, named after the warrior women of mythology and this story is very much about women. It’s not just that Marina and Annika are women; it’s that one of the moral questions get at women’s fertility, that Lost Horizon and whether that is really a boon for women or their children.
Ann Patchett is a wonderful prose stylist. She can write things that are so perfect. When she arrives in Manaus “every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.” She’s been ill and the anti-malarial medicine she takes gives her nightmares, but then she goes to the opera and “then the orchestra struck a note that brought her back to herself. Every pass of the cellists’ bows across the cellos’ strings scraped away a bit of her confusion, and the woodwinds returned her to strength.”
She trained as an obstetrician and performed a disastrous C-section. During the story, she delivers more children through C-section without the amenities and cleanliness of an operating room, but she also delivers a child from the death-grip of an anaconda, using a machete instead of scalpel, she carefully cuts him away, bringing him back to life.
There is this imperialist worldview, from the outset, the whole point of the research is to learn the secret of their prolonged female fertility, to extract their secrets for the benefit of women in the developed world. Swenson, though, does not want to “interfere” and withhold antibiotics when they are sick. The Amazonian tribe that Swenson studies is mysterious and completely Other. They don’t speak English and the scientists, including Swenson who has spent 50 years among them, do not bother to learn their language. Then there is Easter, this perfect nature-child who does not speak and cannot hear thanks to childhood meningitis, is loved by all, all who seem to think they can decide his future. Easter, in fact, becomes a pawn.
This is a well-written and thought-provoking book. I confess that it was slow-going in Minnesota and Manaus and only really got moving when it got to the Amazon. It’s a book that asks us difficult questions and does not answer them, asking us to think for ourselves.