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Complicated truths

By Sally Bland - Feb 24,2013 - Last updated at Feb 24,2013

State of Wonder
Ann Patchett
New York: HarperCollins, 2012
Pp. 353

Marina, a doctor turned pharmaceutical researcher, is the central character in Ann Pachett’s latest novel. Well into the story, she appears unable to take the initiative except within contexts set by others. Though highly intelligent, she defers to her boss and secret lover, Mr Fox, who doesn’t seem all that domineering, and later on, to Dr Swenson, who is unabashedly so.

In Marina, with her astute observational skills, Patchett has created an ideal character for conveying the “state of wonder” brought on by unpredictable human behaviour and the forces of nature. Eventually, extraordinary circumstances push Marina to be more pro-active, but her growing assertiveness is only part of the story.

The plot is catalysed by news that Marina’s lab partner, Anders, has died in the Amazon. He had been sent there to check on the progress of a fertility drug being developed by Dr Swenson, which Dr Fox’s company in Minnesota is eagerly awaiting. This hurls Marina into a dual mission to Brazil: to learn the circumstances of Ander’s death and to complete his intended investigation.

Patchett tucks in a set of mysteries that make “State of Wonder” totally riveting from start to finish. Dr Swenson’s letter telling that Anders is dead is devoid of details. No one knows how he died. Nor does anyone know exactly where in the impenetrable Amazon jungle Dr Swenson’s research station is located, much less what she is actually doing or why she doesn’t communicate with the company that funds her work. It will cross the reader’s mind more than once that Dr Swenson might be culpable in Ander’s death, but Patchett’s story is much more complex than a murder mystery.

Embarking on her journey, Marina is filled with conflicting emotions. Empathising with Ander’s wife and children, she hopes to return with information that will comfort them. On the other hand, she views with trepidation the coming reunion with Dr Swenson who was once her teacher in medical school and shares an unhappy secret of her past. The fact that Marina’s father was an Indian, who left her and her mother to return to his own country, adds to her apprehension. She still has nightmares of being separated from him in the chaotic crowds she experienced on visits to India, but what she faces in the rainforest is not just people with a radically different culture, exotic flora and fauna, or primitive conditions. It is nothing less than herself.

Entering the Amazon jungle in search of Dr Swenson ushers Marina into an amazing world where the rules of the game are quite different than any she has known in her placid Minnesota life. Most fascinating is meeting the Lakashi, a tribe of indigenous people (invented by Patchett for the purposes of her novel), whose women continue to give birth as long as they live. Dr Swenson’s discovery of the substance that allows them to do this promises a new fertility drug and, she believes, immunisation against malaria.

“State of Wonder” raises many questions about human being’s responsibility for each other. After the letter arrives announcing Ander’s death, Marina wonders, “How long would they have waited passively for news of Anders while they went about their lives?” (p. 29)

Ethical dilemmas multiply when she finally finds Dr. Swenson, and learns that she doesn’t communicate with the company because she thinks it wants the fertility drug immediately and won’t wait for the perfection of the malaria inoculation. As she sees it, it’s a trade off: “When we get one drug we’ll have the other, and I don’t see the harm in making an American pharmaceutical company pay for a vaccination that will have enormous benefits to world health and no financial benefits for company shareholders. The people who need a malarial vaccine will never have the means to pay for it. At the same time I will give them a drug that will, if anything, undermine the health of women and make them a truly obscene fortune.” (p. 288)

Much more complex are the ethical questions involved when using indigenous people as research subjects. Should a doctor treat individual cases when it takes time away from research intended to benefit all humanity? How does one respect the indigenous people? In Dr Swenson’s view, one should let them go on with their lives “as if you had never arrived… you could never convert them to your way of life anyway.” (p. 162)

But wait! She needs these people; they’re the source of her discovery, her very livelihood. Good intentions aside, she has built her empire on the Lakashi women’s wombs in a story that contains echoes of Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness”, minus the cruelty.

This is a story full of trade-offs; every major character is forced into making hard choices; no one comes out innocent, but Patchett makes no judgments. Quite remarkably, she writes in a way that zooms in on her characters, revealing their inner spirit, yet at the same time views them from a distance. As a result, much is left ambiguous, even though the plot involves life-and-death issues. What Patchett does show without a trace of ambiguity is that the truth is complicated.

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