Connect with us

Thai Life

Phuket Books: ‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

Legacy Phuket Gazette



PHUKET: Ann Patchett’s seventh novel State of Wonder (Harper Collins, New York, 2011, 353pp) made a big splash upon publication, with many critics comparing it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

This is nonsense. Comparing Kurtz, the cruel conqueror of an African tribe in the heart of the Congo, to Dr Annick Swenson, an elderly, eccentric and cleverly mendacious medical researcher in the Brazilian Amazon, is a stretch. And she’s not that far from civilization – only a short boat ride from the capital of Manaus.

Still, this is a gripping read. Ann Patchett is a master of the novelist’s craft and she lays out an intricate and convincing plot. She holds off introducing Dr Annick Swenson, surrounded by mystery and controversy, until the novel is one third underway.

The focus of the book – the Charles Marlow character – is Dr Marina Singh, a research biologist at a Minnesota pharmaceutical firm. Dr Swenson has been in the jungle for decades, searching for an Indian natural remedy that prolongs fertility into the fifties and sixties.

Dr Swenson’s colleague, Anders Eckman, had been sent to bring Dr Swenson and her research notes back home, but Dr Swenson has written a cold and concise letter reporting that Eckman has died of a jungle fever. Dr Singh is selected and sent to replace him.

In Manaus, Singh is artfully put in her place by an array of characters dedicated to protecting Swenson’s isolation.

Then, accompanied by a deaf-mute Indian boy named Easter, Swenson makes a dramatic appearance at the opening of Glock’s Orfeo ed Surdice at the Teatro Amazonas, the legendary opera house that rose upon the Amazon’s rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century.

“The building itself was the performance, the two long marble staircases curving in front, the high blue walls piped with crisp white embellishments, the great tiled dome that must have been torn from a Russian palace by a monstrous storm and blown all the way to South America – Marina thought of it as the line of civilization that held the jungle back. Surely without the opera house the vines would have crept up over the city and swallowed it whole.”

Swenson’s arrival is worth the wait. She is curt, imperious, majestic, eloquent – and a prodigious liar. As a surgical professor at Johns Hopkins, she had terrified Marina Singh. She does so again, over the course of weeks at her camp in the riverside village of the Lakashi tribe, as she deftly manipulates Singh and drops veil upon veil of deceptions.

Naturally, I won’t reveal these. But Swenson’s aim is to convince Singh to stay and take over her mission which she, in turn, had inherited from her own mentor and lover, the swashbuckling Martin Rapp.

There are plots within plots within plots, the momentum quickened by a looming presence of the cannibalistic Hummocca tribe: “Tribes are like countries. They each have their own national characteristics. Tribes like the Jinta are essentially Canadian. Other tribes, like the Hummocca, are more North Korean.”

Singh yearns to be released from this dark world and return to the old, placid life in Minnesota.

“Trust me, you won’t fit in there anymore,” Swenson tells her. “You’ve changed. You’ve betrayed your employer, and you’ll keep on betraying him, and that won’t sit well with someone like you. I changed myself once; it was a long time ago but I changed. I followed my teacher down here too. I thought I was coming for the summer. I know about this… I wasn’t like Dr Rapp, and still I took his place. You’re not like me but you wait; you’ll go back there and nothing will make sense to you anymore.”

The final lurch of the plot is startling as we are transported in the space of two pages from the depths of the jungle to normal, sunny, suburban Minnesota. But the many moral questions raised in this deeply serious novel remain unanswered.

I suppose the most sincere form of flattery is to read more of Ann Patchett’s novels, and I plan to do so.

— James Eckardt


Get more from The Thaiger

📱 Download our app on Android or iOS
👋 Have your say on our Thailand forums
🔔 Subscribe to our daily email newsletter
📺 Subscribe / Join YouTube for daily shows
👍 Like/Follow us on Facebook
🐦 FOLLOW us on Twitter
📷 FOLLOW us on Instagram


Join the conversation and have your say on Thailand news published on The Thaiger.

Thaiger Talk is our new Thaiger Community where you can join the discussion on everything happening in Thailand right now.

Please note that articles are not posted to the forum instantly and can take up to 20 min before being visible. Click for more information and the Thaiger Talk Guidelines.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

Follow Thaiger by email:

Insurgency7 hours ago

Suspected insurgent wanted for murder killed by forces in Pattani

Thailand9 hours ago

Phang Nga reopening and “Phuket Sandbox” island hop extensions postponed

Best of9 hours ago

Bangkok’s 5 best SHA Plus Certified hotels

Welcome back to Thailand!

Thaiger is getting behind local businesses for the restart of tourism in Thailand - up to 50% discounts across all advertising packages!

Best of10 hours ago

Top 5 steakhouses in Phuket

Thailand10 hours ago

Bangkok Train Market official says they will reopen

Thailand10 hours ago

August vaccination plan: 80% of Bangkok residents; open to general public, expats

Join the conversation on the Thaiger Talk forums today!
Thailand10 hours ago

300 beds added to Phuket’s second field hospital

Thailand10 hours ago

The Thaiger launches the ‘I Am Strong’ campaign

Indonesia11 hours ago

Earthquake hits Papua, Indonesia

Thailand11 hours ago

Thailand News Today | More Dark red zones, ‘coup rumour’ quashed | August 2

Thailand12 hours ago

Man arrested for allegedly robbing 7-Eleven stores in Bangkok to pay off gambling debt

Thailand12 hours ago

Protestors fill Bangkok streets to protest Prayut, many protest leaders present

Crime12 hours ago

Teenagers arrested for allegedly running underage prostitution racket

Thailand13 hours ago

PM’s daughters get letter asking them to tell their father to resign

Coronavirus (Covid-19)13 hours ago

Monday Covid Update: 17,970 new cases, provincial totals

Thailand5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Thai Airways in rehab, All go for Songkran | March 4

Tourism5 months ago

Phuket’s nightlife. Yes, bars and clubs are still open | VIDEO

Phuket5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid passport talks, Thai Airways heads to court | March 2

Tourism5 months ago

Phuket Thai food treats you need to try | VIDEO

Thailand5 months ago

Thailand News Today | Bars, pubs and restaurants ‘sort of’ back to normal | Feb 23

Tourism5 months ago

In search of Cat & Dog Cafés in Phuket Town | VIDEO

Thailand6 months ago

Thailand News Today | Gambling crackdown, Seafood market to reopen, Vlogger challenge | Jan 21

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid testing for visas, Business impact, Vaccine approval | January 19

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Weekend Bangkok bombs, Thailand fires, Covid update | January 18

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Stray car on runway, Indonesian quake, 300 baht tourist fee | January 15

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Governor off respirator, sex-trafficking arrest, condo prices falling | January 14

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Chinese vaccine, Thailand ‘drug hub’, Covid update | January 13

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Bangkok may ease restrictions, Phuket bar curfew, Vaccine roll out | January 12

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Covid latest, Cockfights closed down, Bryde’s Whale beached | January 11

Thailand7 months ago

Thailand News Today | Southern floods, Face mask fines, Thai Air Asia woes | January 8