Ann Patchett, State of Wonder

A pharmaceutical company is funding a research worker, Dr Swenson, who is working in the Amazonian Jungle, investigating a tribe, the Lakashi. The women of this tribe continue to produce children until they die. Not one or two of them, but all of them. Some women do continue to be fertile long past the time when most women experience the menopause, but the claim here is that all of the women in this tribe do. You can see the attraction. What is it? Diet, sexual practices? If it is a genetic feature of this tribe, that’s not so interesting. But the pharmaceutical company do not really know what is going on, and a colleague of Dr Swenson, Anders Eckman, is sent to investigate. Reports come back that he is dead, but there is little detail. Marina Singh, a colleague of Anders and former student of Dr Swenson, now a research worker herself, goes out to investigate.

When I started reading this book, I thought that the premise of this book was unbelievable. A pharmaceutical company would not fund a scientist, based on the limited information she gave them, and would certainly not continue to provide funding in the absence of reports, accounts of progress. A lecturer and research worker who had something of interest to a  pharmaceutical company would have to provide reports. They would want to see notebooks, accounts of due diligence, and, after funding, reports, and if reports were not forthcoming, the funding would stop. And not only from that company, but from all others. Word would get around.

But we set this all on one side, because by the time we’ve realised this, we are entranced by the story and by the writing.

Ann Patchett has an ability to look into her protagonist, Marina’s, life and the life of the other characters, and it seemed to me that this book is a long meditation about families, and about children. Marina has a confused relationship with Dr Fox, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company, and it’s unclear if he is manipulating and exploiting her, or she is exploiting him.

In Western, developed, societies, we talk about my wife, my husband, my children. The possessive, we talk as if they belong to us. We’ve come a long way since the Married Woman’s Property Act, but we still have this view that our immediate family is the nucleus of our lives. For some, brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles and aunts are important, but the contrast is with much of the rest of the world, where it is the extended family that is important, and often the most extended family of all, the tribe, like the Lakashi.

The opening chapter is remarkably like Bel Canto, another of Patchett’s novels. The characters appear, we gradually learn who they are, and their personalities are revealed. The account of breaking the news of Ander’s death in the Amazon is remarkable for the way in which it reveals Marina’s character. And the letters, scattered throughout the novel, reveal more and more about this man Anders, and although he’s absent for a large part of the novel, we know him as well as any of the principal characters.

There’s the remarkable scene when Marina and Dr Swenson arrive, the Lakashi people standing on the river bank, holding up burning branches, and Marina asks if they knew Dr Swenson was coming, and is told that she doesn’t know, wonders if they waited there every evening. What a strange response. Just think about it. As the pontoon approaches, before the Lakashi hear the motor, it will be disturbing the birds and the monkeys, still out of earshot, but that will disturb other birds and monkeys, and then birds and monkeys even nearer the Lakashi that they will hear, and they will become aware that something is coming, and the Lakashi will be rushing down to the river. This doesn’t happen so much in England: there are too many people and not enough animals and birds, but it is always happening in less densely populated places. I was in northern Kenya, and the Turkana man I was with looked up. “Police come”, he said. I couldn’t hear or see anything, but about half an hour later, there they were.

Many of the characters are revealed as men and women who have thought about what they are doing. Dr Swenson is driven by her vision of reproductive help for women, but she has also thought about what the Lakashi people need. She is a charismatic woman, and Marina is disposed to follow her anywhere, but then Marina turns away, and, more and more, resists Dr Swenson’s instructions. And Dr Swenson has come to realise that old women shouldn’t be bearing children.

And when we arrive at the laboratory in the Amazon jungle, we find that it is conducted as a laboratory should be. They have notebooks, and records, it’s just that they haven’t passed the information on to the pharmaceutical company. I still am doubtful. When the company go to the FDA to get a drug approved, they would need those notebooks. The notebooks would have to be certified, authenticated as a true record of investigations that had been carried out at a particular time. There would need to be proof that Dr Swenson possessed the intellectual property rights in whatever it was. And then, the revelation that it’s protection against falciparum malaria. At this point, I thought it didn’t make much sense to be worrying about whether the story was believable. It wasn’t. A cure for infertility is stretching it a bit, but for the same material, whatever it was, to protect against malaria as well! But that isn’t what the book is about.

One of the central and most important scenes in the novel, although a very short scene, occurs halfway through, when two of the research workers, Nancy and Alan Saturn are arguing. There has been a great deal about Dr Swenson and Dr Rapp sticking to their priorities, not being distracted by the needs of their followers, and Dr Swenson has warned Marina that, if she goes out into the Amazon, she is on her own, will have to find her own way back. Nancy has been criticising Dr Rapp for abandoning her husband when he was ill, and he defending his teacher. It follows the usual course of a marital disagreement, and Marina wants to separate herself from this: it’s too close to her own experience for comfort. The familiar husband-wife interchange goes on, and ends with Marina’s devastating conclusion: in this life we love who we love. That sums up every relationship novel that has ever been written.

The rest of the novel is a roller-coaster. You see that anything can happen, and it does. Coincidence piles upon accident. I kept expecting that Patchett would introduce Kant’s categorical imperative, that we must always treat  a man or woman, including ourselves, as an end, and not merely as a means. She didn’t, but the thought is there, and there’s also the dilemma for those who would follow this maxim: what do you do if one person’s end conflicts with another’s? Marina gives Easter, a child from a tribe related to the Lakashi, away to recover Anders, her other child. Easter has become a means to another man’s end. The symbolism is heavy. And then she gives Anders away, back to his wife. What has Marina got out of this? Not much, but at least she has freed herself from her father. There are loose ends. Easter will find his way back to Dr Swenson, we know that. Dr Swenson will die, fairly soon. You aren’t sure if Marina will go to Dr Fox, or what she will do. It doesn’t matter. It’s up to you to exercise your imagination. Some novels tie up the loose ends, you are told how things work out. Patchett leaves the loose ends for us to make what we will of them.


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