The Raven's Gift

In a post-apocalyptic world, how would you react? Would you do just about anything to survive? Would you have hope? Or would you give in to despair as the world sinks into chaos and anarchy?

Don Rearden’s first novel explores this idea from the point of view of John Morgan, a young, once idealistic schoolteacher. He and his wife Anna moved to a tiny, remote village in northern Alaska, prepared for hardship, adventure and new experiences. But the village is overtaken by a virulent fever which speeds through the community, leaving many dead in its wake. Cut off from the rest of the world and finally realizing that the cavalry is not on its way, John eventually flees, in hopes of finding help or even anyone else alive.

We follow John’s journey in the present and through flashbacks. We see him as the idealist in a loving relationship with his wife, and also as a cynic with many questions. How did the virus reach this isolated community? How did it start? Was it a natural occurrence or was it a government experiment? Why is no one coming to help? Are they all dead, or is this part of the experiment—to see if an isolated community could survive such a devastating situation, and how resourceful they would be.

John’s story is totally engrossing. It is a fast-paced examination of a catastrophe that is all the more chilling to contemplate as we see how such a disaster could actually happen. Much food for thought here, but despite all, we are not left in total despair. A very strong first novel from Mr. Rearden.

State of Wonder

By Ann Patchett

Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Brazil by the pharmaceutical company she works for, to track down the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, who is working in the Amazon jungle on a very promising fertility drug. Marina is also in search of information about the death of her former colleague and research partner Anders Eckman.

Once in contact with Swenson, Marina travels with her into the jungle on a pontoon driven by a young deaf boy named Easter. Marina’s fear and discomfort are palpable, and when the end of the day brings a bombardment of insects, Patchett’s description is so vivid that we almost feel them raining down on us: “At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find.” And as it gets darker Marina becomes even more uneasy because she cannot see the jungle anymore: “She felt the plant life pressing against the edges of the water, straining towards them, every root and tendril reaching.” We have complete empathy for her feelings of vulnerability and oppression.

State of Wonder is filled with such rich descriptions that create a very strong sense of place. It is a beautifully written book; the language is so detailed and vivid that we can almost hear the birds and touch the trees and smell the air after the rain. We are there in the jungle with Marina and her colleagues. Patchett’s creation of this world was the greatest strength of this book.

Another strong component is the development of Marina’s character as she confronts some of her long-held fears in this alien landscape; we see her strength and determination in going to the jungle on behalf of her friend; and we delight in her warm, wordless relationship with Easter. But in general, I felt that the character development was lacking. We do get to know Marina and to some degree, Swenson, and we learn to love her young companion, Easter, but there are many secondary characters that seem to exist merely to move the plot along.

I was enthralled with this book almost to the end. Patchett creates a spellbinding world and forces us to confront questions surrounding drug research, exploitation of natives, sacrifice, love, and betrayal. It is an intense read, demanding much contemplation.

But then, the ending. This was very, very disappointing. It was unexpected and anticlimactic, and felt rushed and out of character. In a way, it spoiled the earlier part of the book that had been so enjoyable. At the same time, the language is so vibrant, the jungle setting is portrayed so vividly, and there is so much to think about, that it might almost be enough to offset the ending. Almost.