Review | Tuesday 28 June 2011
This is quite possibly Ann Patchett’s most intriguing and compelling novel to date. It begins with the news of Anders Eckman’s death, ‘I write with unfortunate news of Dr Eckman, who died of fever two nights ago ... As for the purpose of Dr Eckman’s mission, I assure you we are making strides. I will keep what little he had here for his wife, to whom I trust you will extend this news along with my sympathy. Despite any setbacks, we persevere.’ Marina Singh, one of Eckman’s colleagues at Vogel Pharmaceuticals, receives the news and is given the unenviable task of informing Eckman’s family of his death. Eckman has been on a field trip to a remote part of the Amazon to report on and salvage what he can of rogue scientist Annick Swenson’s research.
Out of loyalty to Eckman and his family, Marina agrees to follow in his doomed footsteps to uncover what actually happened to him. There are complications though: nobody really knows the exact nature of Dr Swenson’s research or her location. This could be the plot of an airport thriller or Willard Price adventure series, but in Patchett’s capable hands it is anything but farcical. Her descriptions of the Amazon are majestical: ‘At dusk the insects came down in a storm ... every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity.’
This novel is peopled with an extraordinary cast of characters, from the tenacious Marina and her complicated relationship with Mr Fox (CEO of Vogel Pharmaceuticals), to the beautiful Bovenders, caretakers of Dr Swenson’s apartment in Manaus and the gatekeepers to her whereabouts. An intoxicating novel that traverses an evening of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Teatro Amazonas to the call-and-response rituals of the Lakashi. Enjoy.
Justine Douglas is manager of Readings Port Melbourne