Orange July has got off to a very good start with State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (from the 2012 shortlist.) I read and reviewed her Orange winner Bel Canto in 2010, and it was one of my favourite books of the year. I have listened to this one on audiobook, trying to avoid getting drips and painty fingerprints on the CD player.
Marina works in a pharmaceutical lab and is confronted one morning with the news that her colleague, Anders Eckman, has died during a trip to the Amazon. He was there to check up on the progress of a field team led by the elusive Dr Swenson. At the behest of her boss, Mr Fox, and Anders' distraught wife Karen, Marina sets out to discover the details of the tale. The whereabouts of Dr Swenson's research station is a closely guarded secret and before she can even venture into the jungle Marina must get past the Bovenders, a young australian couple who occupy the flat that is her only point of contact. There is obviously some very significant work going on as there seems to be an open cheque book for the project. Eventually Dr Swenson turns up and Marina goes with her to live with the tribe who's incredible fertility is being studied. Things turn out to be much more complicated than it first appears, and the tribal women's much more significant resistance to malaria is curiously linked to their fertility. Marina rapidly becomes absorbed into the new life she finds herself living and a young deaf boy called Easter, adopted by Dr Swenson from a neighbouring tribe, somehow becomes the linchpin of the entire story. It is Mr Fox's abrupt arrival in search of Marina towards the end of the story that brings about a dramatic denouement.
As with Bel Canto this book is very much about atmosphere. It is about a sense of dislocation, little devices like her lost luggage serve to cut Marina off from the world she knows and force her to simply wait and see what happens next. It was very, very slow to get going and it took me a long time to understand the point of it all. Although written in the third person it focusses so heavily on the thoughts and actions of Marina that it feels more like she is writing about herself, but almost watching herself from the outside. She is a very passive person; that is her defining characteristic. But not thoughtlessly so. She is also quite naive so I found myself identifying with her. Dr Swenson, on the other hand, is forceful to the point of domineering. She made me think of Lord Asriel in Dark Materials, who makes things happen by sheer force of will. She is totally dedicated, obsessed with the importance of the work she is conducting, considering only the basic practical things in life that allow the work to continue uninterrupted. She has isolated the research station from their corporate sponsors, keeping them away from the research and even denying them information about the progress towards a usable drug. We discover there are ulterior motives for this behaviour. I only wrote down one quote as I listened. It made me laugh out loud and summed up her attitude towards all intrusions on her work. She and Marina are at the store ordering supplies, and she assesses the significance of Marina's character and presence in the party thus:
"It was impossible to know how many apricots a person would eat once they had been removed from civilisation."
What I admired about Bel Canto is the same with State of Wonder. The situation is morally ambiguous, and the story raises all sorts of questions, but does not even pretend to answer them for you. Leaving aside the slightly strange situation where she has lived with the tribe for ten years and failed to learn how to talk their language you are left with very big questions about the place of scientific research, the use of natural resources, the destruction of indigenous cultures. Then there are all the questions about extended fertility, the impact of having babies on women's lives. Can unethical behaviour be justified if you are acting for the greater good? Why does Dr Swenson think she can make moral choices on behalf of others? The two women are such polar opposites, and the relationship between them is very interesting. I guess it is part of why I like women literary fiction writers, precisely because they are interested in the relationships between their women characters. This book was hard to get in to, but I think the rewards for perseverance were definitely worth it. The Orange Prize never lets me down.