OneMansView, April 11, 2011
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The Amazon: a formidable place
It is an enviable talent, best realized previously in BEL CANTO, of the author to vividly and dramatically construct special places and situations, dictated by unusual circumstances that have suddenly undercut comfortably led lives, calling upon deep-seated resourcefulness and reserves for basic survival. Forty-two-year-old Dr. Marina Singh, a former Ob-Gyn resident, is stunned by the news that her long-time pharmacological research partner Anders Eckman has died in the Amazonian jungles from an incurable fever only a few months after being sent by their employer to determine the progress being made on a new fertility drug by the reclusive Dr. Annick Swenson; it is work that has to take place deep in the jungle, nonetheless, the company wants to see practical evidence of a future return on its investment.
Marina, from the time her boss and clandestine lover Mr. Fox and Ander’s devastated widow Karen persuade her to travel to the Amazon, has no point of reference to anticipate the profound life-changes that she will face over the next several months. Even before departure, screaming nightmares begin as a result of taking medicines to protect against tropical diseases, not to mention the dread of having to encounter the cantankerous Dr. Swenson, who was the attending physician when Marina committed an egregious mistake as a resident some fifteen years prior, prompting her to change careers.
The author slowly and deftly increases the tension level upon Marina’s arrival in Manaus, the last outpost of civilization on the Amazon: her luggage is lost; she is constantly being soaked and muddied by the unpredictable torrential rains; she is dependent on a young bohemian couple, the Bovender’s, who live in Dr. Swenson’s apartment in her absence, but who are particularly non-revelatory; and she too develops a severe fever. When the brusque Dr. Swenson unexpectedly appears at an Manaus opera house performance, which the Bovender’s and Marina are attending, it appears to be only to add to Marina’s misery by disingenuously forcing her to walk to a restaurant in inappropriate shoes causing the formation of painful blisters and to dissuade Marina from accompanying her on her return to the jungle. It is only by drawing upon her last ounce of resolve and her promise to bring closure to Ander’s death that Marina climbs aboard the pontoon boat piloted by Easter, a deaf Indian boy more or less adopted by Dr. Swenson, early the next morning. And so begins an unimaginable journey.
A state of wonder can only partially capture the observations and experiences of Marina in the heart of the Amazon. The Amazonian jungle is a fearful place: the vegetation alone threatens to swallow all, not to mention that it harbors a wide variety of hurtful, if not deadly, elements - plants, animals, and other tribes - learned about only through generationally imparted knowledge. The Indian tribe, the Lakashi, that are part of the fertility study, is both primitive and highly communal, with an unnerving proclivity to touch, slap, and groom each other, including Marina. One behavior change necessary in an environment of deprivation, is that self-pitying demons and fears have to be discarded. Marina becomes the camp de-facto surgeon, forced to innovate beyond anything taught in medical school, and slowly learns to appreciate the thinking, concerns, and work of Dr. Swenson, while gaining her respect. While Marina must weigh the findings of Dr. Swenson versus the demands of her employer, she remains steadfast in her mission to learn about Anders. Easter apparently had a close relationship with him, keeping any number of important items, including unmailed letters, which only adds to her desire to find closure for Anders.
The book is not without its implausible, perhaps magical, moments. Yet it is hard to nitpick a different reality ��" one that operates according to its own imperative, once initiated by the author. As in BEL CANTO, a special, symbiotic community is at work, the reality of which would escape anyone not embedded within it. One scarcely concealed reality is the bottom-line mentality of Vogel, the pharmaceutical company, including Mr. Fox. While we, the readers, may want to recognize the special nature and uniqueness of such a community, individuals and communities in the eyes of many profit-seeking companies are means to ends and are expendable.