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Heart and darkness

Vivid, magical tale of a childless woman scientist sent to the Amazon to learn the truth behind a colleague’s death and work on fertility drug

By Caroline Leavitt
June 12, 2011

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Is there nothing the prodigiously talented Ann Patchett can’t do? She’s channeled the world of opera, Boston politics, magic, unwed motherhood, and race relations, creating scenarios so indelible, you swear they are right outside your door. Now, in a novel as intoxicatingly strange as it is forbidding, she unfolds an intricately moving “Heart of Darkness’’ story set in the Amazon jungle.

At the center of the novel is Dr. Marina Singh. Forty-two and childless, she’s caught in a relationship with her much older boss at Vogel Pharmaceuticals, a relationship so devoid of passion that she even refers to him as “Mr.” The drug company is investigating a promising new fertility treatment deep in the Brazilian Amazon, a seemingly win-win study that would allow baby-hungry, busy American women to procreate for their entire lives, and would reap untold profits for Vogel. But the study is being run by the eminent and intimidating Dr. Annick Swenson, who has been stubbornly incommunicado for two years. Vogel had previously sent Marina’s friend and colleague Anders Eckman to bring Swenson — and her data — back, but he died of jungle fever, and to his wife’s shock, his body was never recovered. Marina’s boss now wants her to go to Brazil and insist the good doctor pony up her findings; Anders’s wife wants Marina to find out what really happened to her husband. Marina, however, is filled with dread, because she and Swenson have a complicated history of their own. Swenson was Marina’s obstetrics professor, and while a young intern, Marina accidentally blinded a baby in a rushed c-section delivery, an event so traumatic that Marina immediately switched to pharmacology. Still, pressed on by both her lover and Anders’s wife, Marina sets out for the unknown.

Patchett drops Marina into a world that is hypnotic, strange, and so terrifyingly real, you can virtually hear the storm of insects buzzing about your head. The rivers are murky and full of deadly snakes. The sun is hellish, and there is even a cannibal tribe nearby. Even moths aren’t quite natural, with “wings the size of handkerchiefs.” Almost instantly, the Amazon starts to change Marina. She loses her suitcase and, in the intolerable heat, she grows as dark as a native and even endures a shaman cure. But her search for the doctor keeps coming up empty, as one gatekeeper after another fends her off.

But find her she does, and Swenson is a fabulously complicated character. Now in her 70s and as prickly and demanding as ever, Swenson isn’t happy to see Marina, though she doesn’t seem to remember her. Reluctantly, she introduces Marina to the remote Lakashi tribe she is working with and to Easter, a deaf mute boy originally from a cannibal tribe and now firmly ensconced with the Lakashi and in Swenson’s heart. The doctor warns Marina to respect “the order that was in place” and to not confuse her outside world with this one, but it’s nearly impossible not to. In one of the novel’s most haunting passages, Marina watches the Lakashi women go to a bank of trees and hypnotically chew on the bark that will keep them fertile. She begins to do the same, acting as both test subject and accepted member of the tribe. But the pull of the Amazon doesn’t preclude her yearning to return home. Only now, she wants to take Easter, the boy she’s come to love and need, back with her, despite Swenson’s insistence that Easter belongs in the jungle.

But where does Marina belong? By the end of the book, she is no longer afraid of the river. She has rescued a boy and successfully delivered a native child by c-section, making her a heroine to the Lakashi women and winning her Swenson’s respect. But Swenson has more to ask of her, things Marina isn’t prepared to do or give, and the more native she becomes, the more the facts of why she’s there begin to change, especially when she realizes the true and startling purpose of Swenson’s research.

As Patchett reveals more and more secrets and surprises, she begins to probe moral ground. What do we owe indigenous cultures in the name of progress? How rightful is it to interfere in their lives? When does morality trump money? The jungle changes you, Swenson keeps telling Marina, but the deeper question is: Should we also be changing the jungle?

Patchett’s last knockout pages proceed full-speed ahead, with more twists and turns and treachery than the Amazon River. Nothing is as it seems, and the ending is as shocking as it’s satisfying. “Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find,” Swenson advises Marina. And in the extraordinary “State of Wonder,’’ those findings are both awe-inspiring and moving.

Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Pictures of You.’’ She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.

STATE OF WONDER
By Ann Patchett
Harper, 353 pp., $26.99