One of this summer's big reads, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, is
the story of a female scientist's journey from Minneapolis to the
depths of the Amazon rain forests. Marina Singh is sent by her
employer to discover the fate of a colleague, Anders Eckman, who
was reported dead
in a cryptic letter by the secretive researcher and ethnobotanist
Dr. Swenson says that Eckman has already been buried, but his wife
Karen doesn't believe he's dead. She charges Marina with retracing
his steps and finding out what really happened.
Patchett uses the Amazon both as a character and as the setting,
according to Nancy Doyle Palmer in a recent interview. "Once I got
to the Amazon and took a look around I wanted to set all future
books there," Patchett says. "It's such a lush canvas, I felt I could pull
off nearly anything in a setting like that."
What she does pull off is a gripping mystery, a classical quest to bring
back the secret of continued fertility and a discussion of the ethics of
pharmaceutical research in the Amazon. The fecundity of the Amazon
is mirrored in the theme of the book--human fertility.
Most interesting to me, though, is her vivid description of life on the
river as she moves deeper into the mysteries of the jungle. Beginning
at the town of Manaus on the juncture of the Amazon with its largest
tributary, the Rio Negro:
The outside air was heavy enough to be bitten and chewed.
Never had Marina's lungs taken in so much oxygen, so much
moisture. With every inhalation, she felt she was introducing
unseen particles of plant life into her body, tiny spores that
bedded down in between her cilia and set about taking root.
Leaving Manaus, she sets out on the Negro, its life an introduction to
the teeming life of the jungle itself:
There was traffic on the Negro, barges and tugs, water taxis with
rotting thatched roofs where river swallows nested, dugout
canoes containing entire families--sisters with babies and
brothers and cousins and grandfathers and aunts holding open
umbrellas, so many people crammed into one log that the lip of
the boat sat nearly level with the surface of the brown water as
one man in the back rowed carefully on. The smaller boats
stayed near the shore, while a cruise ship, white as a sailor's
dress uniform, churned up the center aisle.
Proceeding up the Rio Negro, they finally turn off onto one of the
countless smaller arteries leading deeper into the jungle. Here Marina
realizes what a different world she's traveling into:
In a matter of minutes the nameless river narrowed and the
green dropped behind them like a curtain and the Negro was
lost. Marina had thought that the important line that was
crossed was between the dock and the boat, the land and the
water. She had thought the water was the line where civilization
fell away. But as they glided between two thick walls of
breathing vegetation, she realized she was in another world
entirely, and she would see civilization drop away again and
again before they reached their final destination.
In this trackless world, she feels disoriented and lost:
From time to time a flock of birds would explode shrieking from
the tangled greenery but the jungle looked so impenetrable that
Marina couldn't imagine how birds were able to fly into it. How
could one bird ever make its way back to the nest.
Even when she can't see, she hears the life surrounding her:
. . .other sounds began to rise, the deep forested chirping, the
caw that came from the tops of trees, the chattering of lower
primates, the incessant sawing of insect life.
As day fades to twilight, the jungle is both menacing and beautiful:
At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard shelled and
soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and
droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew up with
unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the
only three humans they could find.
Finally, the darkness is complete, revealing new beauty and wonders:
Beyond the spectrum of darkness she saw the bright stars
scattered across the table of the night sky and felt as if she had
never seen such things as stars before. She did not know enough
numbers to count them, and even if she did, the stars could not
be separated one from the other, the whole was so much greater
than the sum of its parts. She saw the textbook constellations,
the heroes of mythology posing on fields of ink. She could see
the milkiness in everything now, the way the sky was spread over
State of Wonder paints a picture of a world of beauty and sudden
danger, poses questions about what it means to be both a woman and
a scientist, builds to a thrilling climax and finally is satisfying on a
number of levels.