Hazel McHaffie

State of Wonder

It’s hard to catalogue my progress with writing Killing me Gently without betraying its secrets, but safe to say it’s almost writing itself these days. I’m poised on a knife edge, living the tension, peering over the cliff edge, fearing the worst. In a perpetual state of wonder at the way the brain works, unravelling a stream of words and ideas that other brains will understand and react to, each in their own idiosyncratic way.

Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder has inspired me to constantly revisit my own prose and try to make it sing like hers. The story is remarkable enough – reading rather like a PhD student expanding her research into fertility and malaria in the Brazilian jungle to inform a novel – but the way it’s written is the most striking thing for me. Enviably beautiful.

Dr Annick Swenson is an eccentric scientist who, for decades, has been studying one of the remotest tribes in the rain-forest. The pharmaceutical company who sponsor her are naturally keen to get progress reports on the drug she’s meant to be developing, but she not only keeps her work shrouded in mystery, she sets up an elaborate ring of protection against being found herself. A mild-mannered lab researcher, Dr Anders Eckman is sent out to investigate but all that returns is a curt letter from Dr Swenson saying that he has died of a fever, his body taken into the jungle by the Lakashi people and given a Christian burial. And no, she didn’t witness this herself.

Dr Marina Singh – Anders’ colleague and Dr Swenson’s former student – is sent out to retrace his steps and bring back more details for his grieving widow and three young sons. It’s a heart stopping journey into the dark heart of an unknown place, all her possessions being lost on the way, and no assurance of any answers. But what she finds is so much more terrifying than anything she anticipated: naturally occurring drugs that blow her mind, a tribe whose female fertility reaches into the seventies (the mind boggles!), a people immune to malaria, a scientist whose dedication to knowledge takes her way beyond the accepted limits of ethical practice, ancient rituals and old hostilities, and a completely different version of events surrounding her friend and colleague Anders. She is challenged beyond her worst nightmares … battling with a giant anaconda strangling a small deaf boy; resurrecting old medical skills; choosing between one human friend’s wellbeing and that of another; weighing up her chances of happiness against a new set of values; setting humanity against science; deciding just how much of the truth can ever be told.

And Patchett weaves a devilishy intriguing scientific plot (which alone must have taken months of painstaking research), through a maze of profound philosophical notions and disturbing ethical arguments, without missing a beat in the hearts of a cast of fabulously colourful characters, and maintaining a wonderfully fluid linguistic style that carries something of the rhythms of the jungle. At first you feel the steady pulsing of masterly prose, your feet firmly on the ground. You stand uncertainly for a short hiatus listening for the tom-toms, wondering where she will take you, if the story will indeed take you anywhere. Then the drumbeat changes, gathering a momentum and power that builds up tension, twists and turns like a mighty river sweeping through tangled undergrowth in uncharted territory. It winds itself around you feverishly, like the lethal coils of a snake, thrashing this way and that, constricting your breathing, until you reach the unexpected and emotional crescendo of the final scene.

A fascinating book. I’m not surprised it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

 

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