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
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
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.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral