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

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

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star