It's probably impossible to avoid making comparisons between Ann Patchett's new novel STATE OF WONDER and Joseph Conrad's classic novella "Heart of Darkness," so I'm not even going to try. The bones of the stories are the same: a young protégé heads into the heart of the jungle, charged with finding a powerful, elusive figure whose activities seem vaguely menacing and whose ties to civilization appear to have been severed on purpose. The mood, the cast of characters, and the nature of what our intrepid outsider finds in the rainforest are deeply different, however --- and that's part of the point.
Readers will likely share Marina's impatience as she languishes in hot, bug-infested Manaus, waiting for Dr. Swenson's gatekeepers...to allow her access to Dr. Swenson's whereabouts.
When she commits a surgical mistake while performing a C-section, however, Marina's crisis of confidence --- as much as the threat of malpractice lawsuits --- cause her to switch direction and pursue a career in pharmaceutical research instead. Now in her early 40s, she works for Vogel, a large pharmaceutical company in the Twin Cities, enjoying (if not exactly loving) her comfortable lifestyle and her secret romance with the company's CEO, Mr. Fox.
Her romantic relationship complicates things when her colleague, Anders Eckman --- who had been sent to Brazil to gauge progress on Vogel's significant financial investment in Dr. Swenson's new, highly classified research --- dies of a fever. With no body to return to his young family and no clues as to how or even where he died, Anders's widow begs Marina to return to Brazil to find answers. Mr. Fox begs her to continue Anders's work of investigating what Dr. Swenson is up to --- and when she'll have a commercially viable drug to show for her work.
Readers will likely share Marina's impatience as she languishes in hot, bug-infested Manaus, waiting for Dr. Swenson's gatekeepers (a young bohemian couple who seem better suited to surfing and sunbathing than to security) to allow her access to Dr. Swenson's whereabouts. Circumstances seem to conspire to leave Marina with fewer and fewer belongings and resources, fewer modern conveniences to stand between herself and the primeval forest. Too much time to think --- not to mention Marina's horrific nightmares caused by her anti-malarial medication --- results in dredging up old memories she thought she'd successfully vanquished. When Dr. Swenson herself appears on the scene, accompanied by a young native deaf boy who was fond of Anders, Marina seizes the opportunity to accompany her feared and admired former mentor into the heart of darkness --- only to be continually confounded by the wonders and horrors she finds there.
Some of the horrors --- giant snakes, deadly fevers, enormous bugs and bats, rumors of cannibalistic tribes --- are the stuff of nightmares themselves, the menacing trappings of a hostile environment. "It never was remarkable that Anders had died," Marina considers after she has spent some time at Dr. Swenson's remote research station, "the remarkable thing was that the rest of them were managing to live in a place for which they were so fundamentally unsuited."
But the more profound jungle terrors are the ones that will haunt readers long after they themselves have returned from the jungle, having to do with the moral dilemmas Marina confronts, with the broader issues of controversial drug development, native assimilation, and the exploitation of the natural world, and with the far more personal --- and devastating --- choices Marina herself makes. A different sort of darkness than Conrad paints, for sure, but one whose murky depths contain both beauty and betrayal.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on June 14, 2011
State of Wonder