The Orange Prize longlist was announced recently and Ann Patchett, a former winner, was on the list. (She won in 2002 for Bel Canto.) I heard her speak about her book, State of Wonder, at the Hay Festival last year. She was interviewed together with Kishwar Desai, author of Witness the Night, and at first it didn’t seem as though she would get a word in edgeways as a passionate Desai expounded her very worthy cause—the battle against female infanticide in India. When Patchett did eventually get to speak she was gracious, funny and self-deprecating and her book, which I hadn’t read at the time, sounded very intriguing.
The Lakashi are a primitive tribe living deep in the Amazon jungle, concealing a medical marvel—the women of this tribe are endlessly fertile, they do not go through menopause and they can go on bearing children into old age. Dr Annick Swenson lives with the tribe researching the reasons behind their abnormal fertility. Vogel, the pharmaceutical company who are financing the project, send a scientist in their employment, Anders Eckman, to check up on Dr Swenson’s progress. The book opens as another scientist, Marina Singh, receives news of her colleague’s death via aerogram from the Brazilian jungle. She undertakes to travel to Manaus to investigate Anders Eckman’s death on behalf of Vogel and his grieving family.
The pacing is a little slow as Marina waits in frustration in Manaus for Dr Swenson to report in (no one knows the exact location of the tribe except Dr Swenson and her researchers) but this delay adds a sense of realism and builds tension, as well as Dr Swenson’s mythic status in Marina’s mind. When Marina eventually meets up with Dr Swenson and travels with her into the heart of the jungle she finds more than one miracle hidden amidst the trees. The plot doesn’t get any less surreal—there is even a fight with an anaconda to look forward to. And yet Patchett’s elegant and empathetic prose lends credibility to this fantastic yarn—we believe in her miracles.
Like the deceptively tranquil surface of the river itself, things are not what they seem—the plot is a complicated web and there are undercurrents of tension lurking below the surface of the relationships. Marina herself is a very authentic and likeable character but her interactions with the other characters are influenced by factors that are gradually revealed, for example, the fact that Marina is a former student of Dr Swenson’s and, under her supervision, experienced a major professional failure that had a lasting effect on her career direction. Dr Swenson is a fascinating character—her cold, scientific pragmatism invites little sympathy but she breaks all her own rules and reveals her humanity in her relationship with the boy Easter. She is harbouring as many secrets as the jungle itself.
The story is fraught with ethical quandaries and philosophical questions. Do women have an inherent right to bear children? What would it do to the family structure if women could give birth in their sixties and seventies and eighties? What is motherhood?
Patchett has liberated me, once and for all, from the old adage ‘write what you know’. She doesn’t have exotic personal experience to draw on—she claims she derived the name of her fecund Amazonian tribe from her breakfast cereal. What could be less inspiring than cereal?
State of Wonder is a more mature and subtle book than Bel Canto and it deserves recognition for the sense of wonder it creates. The Orange Prize will be awarded on the 30th of May.