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State of Wonder - Book review

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by James Whitmore (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living and working in Melbourne. I'm into film, food, beaches, books, and outdoor stuff.
Published January 19th 2013
Anacondas, cannibals, children
Deep in the Amazonian jungle there's a type of tree with yellow bark that, when chewed, allows women to bear children long after menopause. That's the premise of State of Wonder, the latest novel by prize-winning author Ann Patchett. It sounds plausible, but it's pure science-fiction. That's the trick: State of Wonder pulls off a dazzling story that resonates with scientific and emotional logic.

State of Wonder
State of Wonder - tackling drug companies and motherhood

US pharmaceutical company Vogel is researching the bark with a view to making endless dollars out of career-first women. The problem is their researcher Dr Swenson has cut contact and possibly gone stir crazy. That's what happens to Westerners in jungles: think Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, King Kong. When one of their people, Anders Eckman, is sent to investigate and doesn't come back, lab assistant Maria Singh is sent to end the whole operation.

All is not as it seems in the jungle (is it ever?) Maria believes she won't be away from home long, but as soon as she arrives in Manaus in Brazil things start going awry. Patchett teases as she builds tension - Maria loses her phone and contact with the outside world, she's allergic to the drug she has to take for malaria, and as a result has savage nightmares. After being held up by a cameo of two Australian hippies she finally makes it to Dr Swenson and then things really get weird.

State of Wonder is a page-turner with the mastery of a good horror movie. There are anacondas, magic mushrooms, river journeys, cannibals, deadly fevers, and several scenes of horrific childbirth. But it's the emotional heart that sticks long after the last pages. Maria is spurred into the jungle by the grieving wife of Anders Eckman in a series of touching scenes. An inherently good if weak character, Maria blossoms into a fierce and capable hero. Questions of motherhood are raised and addressed by the drug and by the aging Dr Swenson. Then there's a humanitarian twist on the research itself that puts faith back into drug research.

State of Wonder is a perfect summer read, a page-turner with soul and mind.
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Why? It's set in Brazil
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