In A State Of Wonder

State of WonderUntil recently, Ann Patchett was for me one of those authors who name is familiar but whose work I’d never read. She was also one of those authors everyone seemed to assume I knew lots about.

She came out to the recent Brisbane Writers Festival (which I missed as I was overseas), and lots of well-read friends breathlessly stated both that they were going to see her and then, afterwards, that she was simply magic.

I composed my blank ‘I know exactly what you mean, when actually I don’t know at all’ face and nodded sagely, then scurried off to order myself one of her books.

Now I not only no longer have to do the ‘look like you’re in the know’ face while madly thinking ‘don’t let on you don’t’. Fittingly, given my ass-about-ness, I unwittingly ordered her recently released book, State of Wonder (probably because I didn’t know enough about her and this title sprang to mind; probably because it was the new book she was here to spruik and it had popped up in promo material).

No matter. It was exquisite (I’m trying to resist saying ‘it left me in a state of wonder’) and, if it’s anything to go by, her award-winning first book, Bel Canto, is doubly so.

That’s effectively one of the highest accolades I can give a fiction book, given my seriously non-fiction bent. I was rapt from the first paragraph of the first page, which opens with the following simple, highly visual, scene-setting sentences that immediately set the book’s tone and that throw us squarely into the middle of the story:

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things?

This single sheet had travelled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.

‘What?’ she said finally.

He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, ‘It’s snowing.’

Bel CantoTruthfully, State of Wonder was a book that both inspired and destroyed me simultaneously as I marvelled at Patchett’s simple-yet-flooring turns of phrase. I did wonder how much of it poured directly and perfectly formed from her head and onto the page/computer screen. I also wondered whether I’d ever be capable of something so simply sophisticated and compelling. Methinks not.

I had to stop dog-earing pages that contained sentences that blew me away because I’d have to dog-ear every page. One example includes:

At that moment she understood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.

Doesn’t seem quite so impressive on its own, but when you collate it with pages and page and pages of such understated elegance it’s, well, both awe-inspiring and a little depressing.

The long and the short of State of Wonder is that a doctor developing a fertility drug in the depths of the Brazilian jungle goes AWOL. The drug company she’s contracted to send another doctor to go find her. He winds up dead and yet another doctor is dispatched to find out what happened, bring him home, and also establish where the drug development is at.

That synopsis doesn’t do the tale justice, and Patchett has woven both a complex narrative of many overlapping, ultimately unveiling layers. Perhaps most fascinating is how she has created believable characters whose actions and motivations morph with such perfection that, rather than adhering to the stereotypes of the two-dimensional baddie and the untainted goodie, they subtly get under your skin and you find yourself admiring, understanding, being frustrated by, despising, and also liking them in equal measure.

Where State of Wonder sits in Patchett’s finger-flexing of her talents I don’t know. It will take me reading her other books to find out. But if State of Wonder is anything to go by, the others—especially the award-winning Bel Canto—are going to be magic.

We Need To Talk About Kevin. We Also Need To Talk About Where My Book Is.

We Need To Talk About KevinNothing invokes excitement and then indignation like finding out one of your favourite books that you think would make an interesting movie is, indeed, being made into a movie and that said favourite book is, in fact, missing from your bookshelf.

The book in question is Lionel Shriver’s award-winning and eminently controversial We Need To Talk About Kevin, and a film starring Tilda Swinton as the film’s tortured, complex protagonist and narrator is reportedly going to air shortly at Cannes.

Had I been able to, I would have given myself a reading refresher of the book before writing this blog. Given the book’s fraught, finely woven, hair-raising themes (stop reading now if you haven’t read it and don’t want to hear its major premises before reading it or viewing the film), someone reading this blog likely to be up in arms by the mere fact that I said I love it.

Note to those up-in-arms people: Please hold fire on the emails about how Shriver is the anti-Christ and her book will forever burn in hell. I don’t have a direct line to Shriver. Besides, pretty sure she’s heard it all before.

Among the myriad complaints people have about WNTTAK (sorry, but writing it is exhaustapating for my fingers on this cold, wintry eve) is that the book is based around letters a woman is writing to her absent husband about their son Kevin. Simple enough stuff, except that Kevin has perpetrated a Columbine-style massacre at his high school.

Double FaultThe woman/mother/I’d use her name but someone has made off with my copy of the book is both now Public Enemy #2 (after Kevin). As well as copping abuse from the community, which include splattering her house and car with red paint, she’s abusing herself over whether it’s her fault that Kevin did what he did.

The book complaints range from the fact Shriver may or may not be being insensitive to those who’ve experienced Columbine (or any of the other number of the school shootings that have taken place over the years) to the fact that she’s not herself a mother and couldn’t possibly understand.

I don’t think there’s much merit to either of these complaints, and think people are offended simply because Shriver’s written the things we’ve all thought but daren’t say, and because she’s done such a good job of  it that it cuts, er, a little close to some people’s bones.

Shriver is renowned for her extensive research, and it’s clear she was obsessed with the themes underpinning this book and went out of her way to understand, inhabit, and challenge these issues and this tale.

WNTTAK wrestles with such elusive, big-picture questions as whether evil is inherent or acquired throughout our lifetimes, why parents can’t ask for or receive help when they really need it, what warning signs are there before such a massacre, and how responsible parents are for their children’s actions.

They’re worthy, difficult questions and Shriver handles them with gloves-off fierceness and intensity, making the book at-times tough to read but one that simultaneously leaps off the page.

You don’t raise WNTTAK in general conversation or loan it out to someone without knowing its mention or return will be accompanied by a long, passionate, philosophical discussion about the nature of good and evil and life as a whole.

Note to whoever I ‘loaned’ the book out to: Please return it. We can, like, talk (about the book).

While I hadn’t spent hours pondering who best to cast in which role, I have to say I think Swinton is the impossibly perfect choice for the lead. Her ability to play austere, ambitious, intelligent, strong, and simultaneously fragile with a spareness of action and emotion (if you’re still with me—perhaps that description is off the wall) will see her inhabit this ‘bad mother’ character and bring her to life exactly how I’d seen envisaged her in my head.

Because meeting my expectations is clearly all that matters.

But enough confusing rabbiting on from me. You can catch some snippets of Swinton’s efforts and the film’s look and feel via these three trailers. Complain if you will: I’m breathless with anticipation of the film’s release and am hoping to locate my missing copy of the book in the interim.

Final notes:

  • If you want to talk complaints, mine is that WNTTAK is Shriver’s best book. Double Fault is decent too, but the others don’t hit quite the same compelling chord.
  • I’m sorry I used so many ( ). I couldn’t help myself.