Ann Patchett's novel bel Canto won the 2002 Orange Prize and, true to my principles, I didn't read it precisely because of that. And yes, silly I know so when a copy floated into my ken, I decided to give it a whirl particularly as it had an operatic background. Quite a few visitors to Random had already recommended this to me and so I kept very quiet when I read it, disliked it and found it tedious beyond belief.
So why did I read State of Wonder? Well, it was sent to me by Alice at Bloomsbury. Alice keeps guiding me to different authors and genres, gently trying to jockey me along and when State of Wonder arrived it was complete with yellow sticker saying 'Elaine - do read this. It's brilliant x'. I am indebted to Alice and Bloomsbury for their generosity and kindness in sending me so many marvellous books so I thought the least I could do was give it a whirl. And was I glad I did - brilliant is the word and the writing of such quality and tightness that I could not put it down.
Deep in the Amazon live a tribe, the Lakashi, where the women remain fertile until death though in all other respects their bodies go the way of all flesh. They continue to bear children into their seventies and if the reason for their fertility can be discovered and harnessed then a pharmaceutical company will make a killing as well as revolutionise the lives of women. Vogel is such a company and is underwriting the research necessary to produce this drug, but their leading scientist, Dr Swenson is a maverick (yes, hate that word as you know but it fits here) and will not be dictated to or suffer time constraints in her work. She is arbitrary in keeping in touch and so when Vogel's CEO is pressurised by the board who want to know what is going on, he sends one of his researchers, Anders Eckman to South America to find out.
Several months later, Marina Singh, his colleague and fellow worker receives the news that he had died of a fever. His death seems to be viewed by Dr Swenson as a bit of a nuisance "We chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions. I must assure you it was no small task". Eckman's wife and mother of his three sons, refuses to believe he is dead and wants to know exactly what happened and, as Vogel wish to found out the current state of the research, Marina is dispatched to South America.
She hates it - it is hot, steamy, sweaty and dirty and Dr Swenson proves elusive and Marina finds herself waiting in Manaus for her to arrive on one of her periodic visits. She is kept at bay a husband and wife, the Bovinders, a hippy couple from Australia who act as the Doctor's gatekeepers in preventing visitors interfering with her work. Marina sits it out and one night attends the opera at the Manaus house.
"Marina leaned over the brass railing of hte balcony to watch the prosperous citizens of Manua find their way to their seats. The Inside of the house was a wedding cake, every intricately decorated layer balanced delicately on the shoulders of the one beneath it, rising p and up to a ceiling where frescoed angels parted the wandering clouds with their hands.........suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten, The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets....she managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival"
As the opera begins the elusive Dr Swenson joins them and the next day Marina leaves with her to go down the Amazon, to meet the Lakashi and to found out what happened to Eckman. Dr Swenson is a complex character, not especially sympathetic to humanity's foibles and failings and appears to care little for the individuals with whom she works, not least Marina.
Despite all the hardships and heat, there is a beauty in the jungle which slowly wraps itself around Marina, almost suffocating her at times and when she has an opportunity to leave, she finds she cannot and remains in the camp.
And so, what of the research and the death of Eckman - does she find out what has happened on both these fronts?
I have to stop here so that I am not tempted to give you even the tiniest hint of what transpires. Needless to say, it is all twisted on its head as Marina finds herself becoming closer to the Eckman she knew when she discovers his countless letters written to his family, but never posted and how much he loves his wife and children.
The ending is uplifting and unexpected but as Marina leaves to return home Dr Swenson wants her to stay and help her with her work.
"I need you here. Trust me, you won't fit in there anymore. You've changed........you're not like me but you wait, you'll go back and nothing will make sense to you any more......you'll come back but don't make me wait forever...."
So she goes home, but will she come back? I wonder.
A terrific book and I was enthralled by it as much as I was bored by Bel Canto. Perhaps I need to revisit that title and see what I think of it after reading this title by Ann Pratchett.
My thanks again to Alice at Bloomsbury for knowing what is good for me....