Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Book #56 State Of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State Of Wonder

Some years ago I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett an unusual but affecting story of a hostage scenario in a government building in an unnamed South American country. It had some beautiful prose and lingered with me afterwards. In the course of 30 years I have read so many books that I couldn't name them all, but if pressed to try I would remember Bel Canto for its strangely affecting qualities, somehow magical in the midst of crisis.

In State Of Wonder, Patchett again returns to South America but via a different route. Marina Singh works for a prestigious pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, and is engaged in an affair with her boss Mr Fox. Suddenly both their courses are changed by the shock news that their colleague Anders Eckman has died in the Amazon after being sent there on assignment by Fox.

Eckman was sent there on the trail of the aloof, imperious Annick Swenson who though employed by the company refuses to be in any way answerable to them and Singh is sent after him to establish what went wrong. What she finds there will change her forever.....

This novel has shades of Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, Theroux's Mosquito Coast and Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, the last of the three being among my favourite novels, dealing with the issues of being a 'stranger in a strange land'. Marina makes a likeable central character and the dynamic she shares with Swenson is made all the more intense by their unspoken shared past. Surrounding characters with the exception of beautifully realised deaf orphan Easter, are a little thin, it is the single minded, slightly scary Swenson, who will stop at nothing to succeed who stands out.

The book touches on some issues which are interesting but doesn't overly develop them, such as the difficult relationship between students, and teachers who seem more like Gods to their faculty; and also, the difficult decisions Western outsiders must make when deciding to intervene in a society where they do not belong. I think it's a shame that these interesting topics were not further explored.

The prose is very accessible, and, I think in this case, I liked the inconclusiveness of the ending because there were so many ways in which the lives of the characters concerned could change or stay the same. It gives the reader something to imagine, and in the act of imagining what might happen next, you discover that actually, you really care. 8/10

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