Here’s something new to this blog, which I’m thinking of turning into a semi-regular feature. I was inspired by the round-table discussions that Niall Harrison used to do at Torque Control to try the same thing – to discuss a book over email with a few people, and blog the results.

The book we have on the table is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. To quote the blurb:

Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate. A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns.

Now Marina Singh, Anders’ colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders’s wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend’s steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr. Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest.

What Marina does not yet know is that, in this ancient corner of the jungle, where the muddy waters and susurrating grasses hide countless unknown perils and temptations, she will face challenges beyond her wildest imagination.

Marina is no longer the student, but only time will tell if she has learnt enough.

Joining me in the conversation were Alison Bacon, Annoné Butler, Yvonne Johnston, and Maureen Kincaid Speller. Please note that we go into some detail about the book, including the ending; you may not want to read the discussion if you haven’t yet read State of Wonder. This is the first half; I’ll post the rest tomorrow [EDIT 10/9: and now here it is].


David Hebblethwaite: What are your thoughts on the role of science in State of Wonder? I guess in a sense it’s at the heart of the book – the main characters are scientists, and the context of the story is a scientific study; but, even at the beginning, there’s a note of ambivalence, when Marina contemplates the blank space at the foot of the letter announcing Anders’ death: “How much could have been said in those remaining inches, how much explained, was beyond scientific measure”. How do you see science in the novel?

Annoné Butler: Ostensibly, Dr Swenson is with the Lakashi in order to discover the secret of their continued fertility. This is what will make Vogel rich, by providing a means for women of the first world to bear children unlimited by age. And it is certainly the primary aim of what the scientific team are doing. Dr Swenson has even tested the bark on herself and knows it works but, in the process, has realised that it is a mistaken and dangerous development. In the process of her own – ultimately catastrophic – pregnancy and birth she reaches the conclusion that such an aim is wholly misconceived – opportunities for birth should be limited as nature intended. This seems to chime with her original view that she is not there to involve herself with the medical problems of the Lakashi, on the basis that their natural state should not be interfered with.

Continue reading