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Ann Patchett: State of Wonder

March 8, 2014
Manaus Opera House

A key scene in the novel takes place in the Opera House in the city of Manaus. Photo by Brian Snelson, CC licence.

A doctor is researching a possible new drug in a remote Amazonian village. A young girl is brought to her bleeding profusely from a head wound. Should the doctor pick out the bone fragments and sew her up? Or should she choose not “to disturb the world around [her] … let it go on as if [she] had never arrived.”

Other questions posed by Ann Patchett in State of Wonder include:

  • Is a drug to extend women’s capacity to bear children to their whole life span a good idea?
  • How does extracting the drug affect the locals?
  • If a leader achieves great things, do we forgive her for being a controlling bully?
  • Is it okay to deceive a pharmaceutical company for a higher purpose?
  • Is it unwise to grab an anaconda?

The novel explores these and other issues but gives no definite answers. That is left to the reader.

In the remote Lakashi village, women are able to bear children beyond the usual age. Dr Annick Swenson is financed by Vogel, a pharmaceutical company, to set up a research station at the village to find the source of this miracle. She and her team have now been there for years, uncontactable by phone or email. Even paper letters are chancy.

Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes meet near Manaus.

The meeting of the Rio Negro, dark from tannin, and the Solimoes (Amazon), coffee-coloured from silt, near Manaus. The Lakashi village is on a remote tributary of the Rio Negro. Photo by Terry Feuerborn, CC licence.

Vogel sends one of its employees, Dr Marina Singh, to the Amazon to find Dr Swenson, check on her progress, and investigate the reported death of another employee who had been sent on the same mission. The unadventurous Marina is completely unsuited to this expedition, especially as Annick was her former teacher, and played a role in a terrible surgical accident, which left Marina with a “great, lumbering guilt that slept inside of her at every moment of her life.”

State of Wonder tells the story of Marina’s Conradesque journey to the heart of the Amazon jungle. I thoroughly recommend the novel because it brims with the energy of a strong narrative, engaging characters, and the questions listed above. But one aspect left me uneasy.

Ann Patchett has said that Caucasians can write about Indigenous people if they “do a good job – if you … honour them.” (Link) In State of Wonder she does not attempt this, possibly because she did not spend long enough with Amazonian people to be able to enter their perspective. But this means that the Lakashi remain an undifferentiated mass. The whole novel is in the viewpoint of Marina, who does not make any connection with the Lakashi. She is, after all, American. Despite her lengthy stay in the village, she does not learn any of their language or even their names, so that no individuals stand out, except for the deaf mute boy Easter, who is from a different tribe.

It is fair comment that this shows how Westerners do look at Indigenous people. What makes me uneasy is that when this key group is described, they either sound like part of the local fauna or they are disparaged. For example, Annick describes them as an “intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned.”

I am not suggesting that Patchett should have entered their point of view or changed what Annick said about them. But if the novel had shown members of the research team connecting with some of the locals, they might have emerged into the foreground as individuals, even if still seen through Marina’s eyes. That could have been one way to honour them.

A small quibble with a fine novel. And the anaconda episode is breathtaking.

The novel includes a gripping confrontation with an anaconda. Photo by Gilson Higashi, CC licence.

The novel includes a gripping confrontation with an anaconda. Photo by Gilson Higashi, CC licence.

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