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State of Wonder

Clare F Hobba

Ann Patchett
Bloomsbury 368pp

State of Wonder is a book which promises a rich battleground for ethical debate.  A tribe has been discovered in the Amazon rainforest whose women are able to bear children into their sixties and seventies.  A US pharmaceutical company, Vogel, is funding one of the original researchers, Dr Annick Swenson, to develop a drug which has the same effect. In offering Western women who are rich enough to pay for it the opportunity to postpone indefinitely the decision to have a baby, the drug should net Vogel a fortune.
One therefore expects an airing for all the issues about the rights and wrongs of fertility treatment versus adoption, of having a baby when you're too old to raise it, and these are certainly present. The other clear issue is that of exploiting indigenous peoples and fragile ecosystems in the Developing World. Ann Patchett does not really open this up to debate, but makes her deep disapproval evident in the way she portrays the cynicism of the scientists.

The Amazon provides a fabulous backdrop of dense green foliage, amazing birds (birds are a theme) a luxuriance of animals, and an exquisite miniature ecosystem where trees, moths, mushrooms and humans work together in harmony. It also provides a sense of ever-present danger with tiny poisonous frogs, lancehead snakes and one very memorable episode with an anaconda.
With such a rich context then, it is a surprise that the true subject matter of State of Wonder turns out not to be either of the major dilemmas. The story is told tightly from the point of view of Marina Singh, a 42-year-old researcher from Vogel, and at its centre is the relationship between an older teacher and a younger pupil (Dr Swenson and her ex-student Marina), the love affairs between older men and the younger women who work for them (there are three examples of these). When the story starts, Marina's friend and colleague Anders Eckman has been despatched to the Amazon to ascertain how far the elusive Dr Swenson has proceeded in producing the fertility drug. A brief note - Swenson's first in two years - mentions that Eckman has died of a fever. Marina is sent to the Amazon to complete his dangerous mission by the wily Mr Fox who is both her boss and her lover.

Dr Swenson is a formidable woman from a previous generation, and once fought bitterly to succeed against the male medical establishment and qualify as a doctor. She seems to be something of a Margaret Thatcher in being tougher than the toughest man -and she feels that the women who come after her must make their own way rather than being given a leg up - it will make them stronger. There is much to fear in Swenson but her Sahara-dry humour makes the reader like her in spite of everything.

A state of wonder is what many of the scientists and businessmen in the novel lack. They never seem willing or able to step back to marvel at the works of God or Nature, but instead, ask immediately how they may be turned to their own use. Dr Swenson, for instance, has worked with the Lakashi for 50 years without ever bothering to learn their language. Her predecessor, Dr Martin Rapp, appropriated the local trees, fungi and moths by naming them all after himself - Martins, Rapps and (in a telling pun) Martinets.

On the other hand, the heroes of the novel do display a state of wonder - Anders Eckman loved birds for their own sake; Marina Singh falls in step with the native Lakashi, often being mistaken for one of them. Both Singh and Eckman pass through the world making new friends. In fact, in her search for Eckman, Marina Singh may be likened to little Gerda in The Snow Queen, seeking Kai in the realm of the Snow Queen, but although there are several carefully chosen cultural references, to Fitzcarraldo, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Wings of a Dove, the Andersen fairytale is not among them.

So what of this drug to lengthen the period of fertility? One might guess Patchett's views on this since she is open about her own decision not to have children. Marina Singh, who is childless at the age of 42, seems to share her views - to her, shapeless maternity clothes look like those worn in an insane asylum and the idea of having babies into old age is 'a chilling thought', but Swenson who carries out experiments in this area speaks most authoritatively: 'Women past a certain age are simply not meant to carry children'. And 'I've never believed the women of the world are entitled to leave every one of their options open for a lifetime'. And yet, Patchett's outlook is far from black and white, so towards the very end of the book, there is a small plot twist which calls into question Marina's commitment to childlessness.

Knowing the subject matter of this novel to be fertility and its relationship to life and death, I had expected there to be more reference to religious values. However, God is barely mentioned except when it comes to those who eat the local hallucinogenic mushrooms and feel that they have met him and spent time with him, a phenomenon immediately undermined by Dr Swenson who desisted from these mushroom-inspired encounters because they involved 'a great deal of vomiting'.

Yet there is a strong theme of redemption in State of Wonder. Marina once made a terrible surgical error that turned the course of her whole career: Dr Swenson shows her confidence that Marina can perform the difficult procedure correctly under critical conditions. Marina also has a recurring nightmare in which a crowd jostles and separates her from her father and finally, during the course of this book, she must live through a very similar experience. A bright and innocent native child, significantly named Easter by Dr Swenson, always looks like a likely sacrifice. In fact, in­­ this excellent book which seethes with ruthless people and their more vulnerable counterparts, with hard-nosed western commerce and fragile Amazonian assets, one of the overriding questions is who will be sacrificed for whom.

Clare F Hobba

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