Ann Patchett’s works have long had the attention of the Orange Prize juries. The Magician’s Assistant was shortlisted for the 1998 Orange Prize, and Bel Canto won in 2002; it wasn’t surprising to see State of Wonder make the jury’s shortlist in 2012.

The most striking element of the novel is its setting. Partly for its own sake and partly for what it represents. Readers travel to the Amazon with Marina Singh, who is accustomed to life in a city, in a laboratory, and they discover it along with her.

She journeys there in the wake of a colleague’s death, for professional and personal reasons, to determine the state of affairs of the project he had been monitoring, and to try to  understand what happened to the man.

Marina is clearly uncomfortable with the situation from the start. That is partly the nature of the situation and partly because she has a propensity for anxiety and nagging “should-have-would-have-could-have” feelings.

She had an accident many years ago, when she was a resident, and she removed herself from the obstetrics and gynecology program and became a pharmacologist instead.

“The great, lumbering guilt that slept inside of her at every moment of her life had shifted, stretched. Wasn’t it logical that guilt should awaken guilt?”

Travelling to the Amazon, on the heels of her colleague, Marina finds herself overwhelmed with emotions. It is a setting of heightened existence to begin with, even in a relatively civilized setting. Take her experience of the Teatro Amazonas, in Manaus.

“Marina thought of it as the line of civilization that held the jungle back. Surely without the opera house the vines would have crept up over the city and swallowed it whole.”

There are all kinds of lines drawn in this novel, none so consistently as this one, this line between the civilized and — between the civilized and the what?

In another story, it could well be the civilized and the uncivilized. But in Ann Patchett’s novel, the line is between the civilized and a state of wonder.

Well, sometimes a jungle is just a jungle. Readers are taken under the canopy and the senses are engaged. Occasionally this takes the form of a one-off observation:

“Every drop of rain hit the ground with such force it bounced back up again, giving the earth the appearance of something boiling.”

That’s an evocative image and, even if readers have never been in the jungle, they can imagine this readily. But sometimes the sensual detail is piled on to the point where it is almost overwhelming.

“There were layers upon layers of scents inside the hammock – the smell of her own sweat which brought up trace amounts of soap and shampoo; the smell of the hammock itself which was both mildewed and sunbaked with a slight hint of rope; the smell of the boat, gasoline and oil; and the smell of the world outside the boat, the river water and the great factory of leaves pumping oxygen into the atmosphere, the tireless photosynthesis of plants turning sunlight into energy, not that photosynthesis had an odor.”

The way that these layers are described, you can almost imagine Marina drawing lines between them. Sweat, shampoo, soap, mildew, sunbaked rope, river water, gasoline, plants: you can picture the diagram, like one in a grade-school textbook depicting the layers of the stratosphere.

But Marina is more interested in drawing other kinds of lines:

Solid orange, but not my favourite

“In a matter of minutes the nameless river narrowed and the green dropped behind them like a curtain and the Negro [River] was lost. Marina had thought that the important line that was crossed was between the dock and the boat, the land and the water. She had thought the water was the line where civilization fell away. But as they glided between two thick walls of breathing vegetation she realized she was in another world entirely, and that she would see civilization drop away again and again before they reached their final destination.”

Still, in each of these instances the reader is entering a landscape, but they are also experiencing it through Marina’s eyes. She is analytical and studious; she is constantly evaluating and assessing, seeking her place in this new system, trying to understand the rules that govern this state of wonder.

Characters are sketched succinctly, like this one:

“Her clothing was wrinkled, sensible, making no concessions for a night at the opera. It seemed possible that she had come directly from the dock. This woman who had fixed the course of Marina’s life looked for all the world like somebody’s Swedish grandmother on a chartered tour of the Amazon.”

You can picture her perfectly. But as somebody’s Swedish grandmother, you might expect that she represent the civilized and, in Ann Patchett’s novel, she is the figure of mystery.

The suspense in the novel arises from the assumptions made about this character which are challenged throughout the course of the novel. She is not, really, the Swedish grandmother. And she has her secrets.

“I didn’t tell you because you wouldn’t have liked the story. But that matters less now, doesn’t it? No one tells the truth to people they don’t actually know, and if they do it is a horrible trait. Everyone wants something smaller, something neater than the truth.”

As a character study and as a gripping story, State of Wonder is an impressive novel. It does not have the structural and thematic layers that might have made this as complex a story as the web of scents that Marina observes, but the judges were understandably drawn to the narrative’s strengths.

Click image for Jill’s OJ

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ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 7 of 20
Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

Originality  Jungle setting is uncommon, but dynamics of secrecy and mystery are familiar.
Readability  Strong, although attention paid to setting might slow some readers.
Author’s voice  Measured, consistent, slightly distanced: suiting a scientist.
Narrative structure  Chronological except with glimpses to the past via letters.
Gaffes None spotted.
Expectations Highest of the high: shortlisted in 1998 and winner in 2002.