Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Another Amazon

The city of Manaus located at the mouth of the Amazon one thousand miles inland from the Atlantic coast of Brazil has always been one of the more exotic and perhaps romantic travel sites in my imagination. For a short span of years in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, the city was the center of a rubber boom and became in the words of one historian, ‘one of the gaudiest cities of the world.’ The opera house cost ten million dollars to build, but one of its first visiting opera companies suffered the death of half its troupe from yellow fever. The growth of Manaus got its impetus from the Industrial Revolution and the need for Amazonian rubber. From that it grew into an almost Parisian city of European rubber planters. That lasted until 1912 when the seeds were smuggled out and rubber trees planted in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and tropical Africa. Their monopoly ended, Manaus languished until 1942 when World War II spurred a brief revival in rubber production, but it was short-lived. Today the colorful rain forest city boasts a population of about two million.

When ordering State of Wonder, the new book from Ann Patchett, I had no idea the story was centered in the rainforest surrounding Manaus, and a portion of it in Manaus. The initial attraction was my liking for books by Ann Patchett, and especially her 2001 prizewinner, Bel Canto. Whatever the story or setting, a new book by this writer goes immediately onto my wish list.

In the briefest synopsis, State of Wonder is about the efforts of a drug company and three of its employees to gain information about the research and progress of a doctor on payroll in the Amazon who has gone off radar. The first person sent there disappears until a letter arrives announcing his death from fever. His lab partner is the next to be sent, and more than anyone else State of Wonder is her story. Their research is in the area of extending pregnancy beyond the natural limits of menopause, of permitting childbearing into the late sixties and beyond. Or at least this is the cover story. As the story unfolds we learn of the doctor’s more useful and beneficial research program there in the rainforest, research she fears will be under appreciated, and with premature exposure unleash a media doomsday on the local tribe of Indians. Obviously, the story is one of discovery revolving around not only ethics, responsibility and cultural interference, but most of all the main character’s discovery of herself.

Marina Singh has been a doctor of pharmacology for thirteen years, a switch from her original med-school plans of internal medicine. An accident during her time as an intern prompts the switch, and we quickly learn that her professor and chief of staff at the time is the very same doctor Dr Swenson, head of the drug research in the Amazonian rainforest. Marina agrees to go to South America mostly to find out more about her co-worker’s death, and also as an appeasement to the man’s wife who believes he is still alive.

I have earlier described Marina as the book’s main character, but there is something a little lopsided about that claim. Of course, Dr Swenson is the book’s other main character, but in fact both these women oftentimes fall into shadow behind the mysterious grandeur and lethal presence of the jungle, the rainforest and primal mover of every living thing under its expanse of tangled vines, trees, water and mud. Every step in its world is loaded with the possibility of snakebite, vicious insect stings, and all manner of creatures looking for a meal, the bigger the better. And if the wildlife doesn’t do it, the headhunters will.

Just me perhaps, but I have never before read pages so fraught with horror and suspense as the six describing an onboard battle with an eighteen foot anaconda determined to kill all five people on the boat. Tension is relentless and the reader begins to fear the huge snake in all its flashing fury and foul odor is going to have its final way with the hapless boat crew.

‘There was an odor none of them recognized, the smell of a furious reptile, an oily stench of putrid rage that sank into the membranes of their nostrils as if it planned to stay there forever. The back half of the snake whipped up and made itself a knot around Easter’s slender waist and wrapped and wrapped and at the moment its head swung past, Easter reached into the air, his hand a quarter second faster than the snake, and grabbed its throat just below the head…’

The more subtle beauty of character development Patchett saves for her human characters. Page by page the layers of Marina’s complex life and experience are unfolded until we see her finally in full illumination. The writer is no different in the unraveling of Dr Swenson’s cocoon, a slow step by step unveiling of a character we are unable to see into initially. This is the unknown quality a reader latches onto with the promise it will be revealed as the story moves toward its conclusion. On the other hand, the rainforest hits us with its full brunt from the first moment, the first wave of its biting-sucking hard-shelled insects. The only drab in this green-brown world are the dilapidated huts, the worn and faded rags of clothing and the hoard of canned rations.

Spend some time with Ann Patchett if you haven’t yet had the pleasure—if not State of Wonder, then the earlier Bel Canto.


  1. Aaahh, the teeming jungle. Part of the deliciousness of reading something fraught with danger is knowing you are safe and secure on the couch. Heart pounding, easy to feel the allure of reading something that quickens the breath.

  2. You could be eligible for a complimentary $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America