patchett’s sixth novel is reminiscent of joseph conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’. both involve expeditions into all but untouched regions of the world to discover the whereabouts and activities of a mysterious charismatic figure. ‘heart of darkness’ dealing with the enigmatic trading agent kurtz in the congo and ‘state of wonder’ centered on the zealous researcher dr. annick swenson in the remote reaches of the amazon. both involve an innocent (charles marlow and dr. marina singh respectively) who are charged to investigate these shadowy characters. and both explore themes of morality, colonialism, racism, and fear.
patchett’s story centers on the expansion of scientific knowledge, as dr. swenson has been sent by the fictional pharmaceutical company vogel to research a tribe of amazonians, the lakashi, who are phenomenally able to produce offspring late into adulthood. she has essentially gone rogue, failing to contact the company with updates on her progress, and after an agent of the company dies mysteriously while investigating her work, it falls upon dr. singh to do a follow up visit to swenson’s remote laboratory. it is refreshing that patchett has women at the heart of her story considering it involves research science which is still a male dominated field. and thankfully (and sadly unique to many female characters in literature) singh and swenson discuss and act upon their own needs rather than simply upon the whims of their male counterparts.
the book can be slow and for much of it i wondered where it was going (especially after dr. swenson enters too early in the novel thus killing the beautiful tension of her mystery). but it’s a book where the final 50 pages make everything that comes before so worth it. the final moments are shocking and completely unexpected, but simultaneously make perfect and satisfying sense within the framework of the narrative. the ethical dilemmas are so masterfully presented by patchett the novel reaches truly nerve-wracking heights at its crescendo. there is a particular heartbreaking decision involving dr. singh that leaves an aching image for the reader at once so simple and yet profoundly disturbing. i honestly said ‘no’ out loud during this particular moment finding myself desperately wishing for the characters to have a chance to rethink their choices. it’s deeply effective.
definitely a recommended book, you just have to stick with it through some sections that you won’t realize the importance of until the complete picture is in place.
read more about the 52 books project