Bloomsbury £12.99

State of Wonder, By Ann Patchett

This modern-day 'Heart of Darkness' investigates the activity of pharmaceutical companies in the Amazon rainforest

The heroine of Ann Patchett's latest novel, which is set in the Amazon rainforest, knows that "it was somehow less humiliating, less disrespectful, to dance with the natives than it was to simply stand there watching them".

In that respect, the more modern and open-minded Marina Singh, and her journey to the heart of darkness that is modern-day South America rather than colonial Africa, is a distinct improvement on Conrad's imperial, racist Marlow. But Patchett is not afraid to keep the parallels with that troubling early 20th-century classic in play: Marina even has a Kurtz, in the shape of the mysterious and incommunicative scientist Dr Annick Swenson. Swenson has written a rare letter, to inform Marina's boss, Mr Fox, that the employee he previously sent to Brazil to find and report on her has died. Marina, Mr Fox has therefore decided, must now follow on, and report on Swenson instead.

In place of the colonialism of imperial governments, we have the giganticism of today's pharmaceutical industry. Dr Swenson is researching an Amazonian tribe whose women still give birth in their seventies. Vogel, the sponsors of her research, are desperate for whatever chemical compound she might be able to manufacture so that women in the West can enjoy the same reproductive miracle. But Swenson has been there for decades – when are they going to get a return on their money? Marina's colleague, Anders Eckman, sent from Vogel's base in Minnesota to hurry her along, winds up dead from a tropical fever. As Marina finds out when she arrives in Manaus, it's not just rainforest conditions that are the problem.

Delayed by Dr Swenson's irritatingly bohemian house-sitters, Jackie and Barbara Bovender, Marina first falls seriously ill, then is further waylaid by Dr Swenson who suddenly arrives in the town, only to tell Marina to go home. Marina's affair with Mr Fox is not panning out the way she had once hoped it would, so she feels no urge to run back to the man who has sent her on this perilous mission, and instead insists on travelling down the Amazon with Swenson. Easter, a young deaf boy from another tribe, assists in their journey to the research laboratory in the middle of the home of the Lakashi tribe.

Marina's arrival causes great excitement. Her bags, and later her clothes, are stolen, but she adapts to the camp fairly quickly, and is more set on finding out what happened to Anders than checking up on Swenson. Marina is plagued by nightmares – one of her Indian father, who died when she was young, and one of a memory of a botched delivery of a baby many years previously, when she was a young medical student of Dr Swenson's – but these ease during her stay in the camp.

The doctor doesn't appear to remember either Marina or the medical calamity – indeed, the brutally efficient and dedicated scientist would probably remember very little of anyone. Patchett's depiction of such a single-minded individual, who lies and deceives the better to protect her work, stays just the right side of caricature. She is rarely menacing but she is cold, and it's only by accident that Marina discovers it's not only a reproductive miracle she's researching, but also a vaccine for malaria.

Reproduction increasingly preoccupies Marina the longer she stays in the rainforest. She is 42, and never thought much about having children before. Now, she sleeps each night with Easter in her arms, to calm his own nightmares, and wonders if the bark on the trees, which the women eat regularly and which seems to contain whatever ingredient it is that keeps them fertile, is something she, too, should ingest.

From the might of pharmaceutical control to tribeswomen chewing bark: the mystery of the creation of life underpins it all.

Heart of Darkness is a tale of racial alienation whose references to "unhappy savages" can make modern readers feel uncomfortable. But Conrad's tale was told by an unreliable narrator who lied to the fiancée of the dead Captain of his trading company while at the same time maintaining that he never told a lie; how much were we ever meant to trust or identify with him?

Patchett, on the other hand, doesn't want us to mistrust Marina. Patchett's sympathetic instinct, the magical trick she performs which ensures that every novel she writes is a work to be embraced, is always to pull the reader in, not to alienate her. She will not risk losing the compassion that permeates her stories, but the image of a scrawny, bearded white man running and shouting among the neighbouring cannibalistic Hummocca tribe is an image straight out of Conrad. The man's fate, and that of the boy, Easter, linger long in the mind after this story is over, and suggest that Patchett, too, understands our deepest, darkest, unvoiceable fears.

To order any of these books at a reduced price, including free UK p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines