STATE OF WONDER by ANN PATCHETT

Even if I describe this book as “lush” and “sensuous” and every other such adjective, I am still not sure whether this would fully convey the evocative, over-powering descriptions of the heat and colour and humidity and darkness of the Amazon, the main backdrop against which this wonderful story unfolds.

As we journey with the intrepid Dr Marina Singh from snowy Minnesota, to Manaus, and then ever further into the heart of the Amazon, we feel the heat, we share her insect bites, we share her terror of snakes, and we are as puzzled as she is by the mystery awaiting her. The writer conjures up the sense of primal fear of the stifling heat and unknown sounds, of the wildlife, the dangers, even of the tribal people with their endearing yet inexplicable behaviour.

The book is a carefully composed series of contrasts which somehow mirror each other, and are cleverly inter-woven.

Marina is –  as her surname would imply – of Indian extraction.  Her mother was American, from the windy, snowy mid-west state of Minnesota. Her father was from the steaming, crowded Indian city of Calcutta.  Her parents go their separate ways when she is a baby, and she only sees her father intermittently after that.  As a rather scared child she saw him in India on occasional trips, but the crowds and noise and heat overwhelmed her.  As an adult, and all though the book, she sees her late father in her nightmares, screaming out loud in her terror of losing him again.

The nightmarish dreams of India are reflected by the reality of her days –  a dangerous, sometimes life-threatening trip up the Amazon, to try and track down a missing colleague from Minnesota.

Marina doesn’t lack for courage in the new, unfamiliar world of the Brazilian rain-forest.

She faces up to her demons when she meets up with her old university professor, the extraordinary Dr. Annick Swenson.

She  faces up to the real nature of love and possession, in her relationship with the endearing little boy Easter.  Although deaf and dumb, Easter is a pivotal character, binding together with his trust and love Marina, her missing colleague Anders, Annick, and the flakey young couple Barbara and Jacky Bovender, who live in Annick’s home in Manaus, and don’t really do much else.

Annick Swenson is larger than life, and totally believable for it.  Searingly intelligent, fearless, passionate about her work, unsentimental, abrupt to the point of rudeness, she towers above everyone in the novel, and is the central figure from which all the closely interwoven threads of the story emanate.

There are moments of pure adrenalin pumping fear, and there are serious moral choices to be made.  The decision as to whether one should leave tribal societies untouched or interfere is a leitmotiv throughout the book.  Marina cannot imagine not helping the tribal people when they are in pain, but by so doing, she intrudes into a system that has worked –  albeit with deaths and pain and suffering –  for centuries.

The end is surprisingly happy – on one level –  though the reuniting of one family is at the cost of ultimate betrayal.

Read this wonderful novel for the story, which is gripping, and for the descriptive prose, which is luscious.

Printed by Bloomsbury, the paperback costs £11.99.

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