State Of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett's new novel dreams along, somewhat as its title suggests, until the moment its main character, 42-year-old pharmacologist Marina Singh, arrives at her destination up a secret tributary of the Rio Negro and, at last, comes face to face with her bete noir, her old medical professor Dr Annick Swenson.
The journey up until then - from a small lab at Minnesota pharmaceutical company Vogel, via the Brazilian city of Menaus (shades of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo - the epitome of unwise, obsessive ventures), and up the river - is strange, a little unfocused, overshot with the terrible nightmares Marina suffers as soon as she begins taking anti-malarial medication.
It is an adventure story - there's a fight with an anaconda, and a tribe of cannibals - yet, like all Patchett's novels (which include the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto), it is redolent with emotional complexity and ideas - about medical ethics, First and Third World relations, and, perhaps above all, our contemporary power struggle with biology.
At its core, thanks to Marina's finely balanced embodiment of need, loneliness and inhibition, lies a quietness, a silence that perhaps has something to say about the atominsation of American life, especially compared to the communality of the Amazon tribes.
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Marina has been sent to Brazil by her employer to discover the details of the death of her workmate, Anders Eckman, who died while trying to unearth details of Swenson's Vogel-funded research. Swenson has written a most cursory note to the company informing them of Eckman's death.
Swenson has worked in the Amazon jungle for many years, having discovered a tribe, the Lakashi, whose women continue to fall pregnant and successfully give birth right into their 70s and 80s.
Unlocking their secret poses enormous financial advantage to Vogel, but the company has become tired of Swenson's evasions.
State Of Wonder owes a lot to Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness. It has the same sense of threat emanating not only from the tangled, frightening jungle, but from the very souls of people. Marina is journeying into the heart of another woman's obsession, and what she finds there does not disappoint: greed, longing, ruthlessness and the unknown.
Margie Thomson is an Auckland reviewer.