Published June 3, 2014
261 pages (hardcover)
During my second year of college, I took an anthropology class. For our final project, we had to develop a comparative study of two similar but distinct groups of people (the assignment must have had additional parameters, but I certainly can’t recall them this many years later). My groundbreaking study looked at the similarities and differences of two distinct subcultures of college students: 1) the hippie-dippy students at Lewis & Clark, my teeny, tiny liberal arts college (a school with no Greek system that abolished its football program the year after I graduated) located in Portland, Oregon, the land of rain and quirk, and 2) the football-crazed Bulldogs at my stepsister’s huge state school in the dirty South, UGA.
The incredibly deep and thought-provoking questions I posed included gems like, “What do you do on an average Friday night?” A Lewis & Clark student’s typical response: smoke a bowl and go out to a bar. A UGA response: go to a frat party and get drunk. When asked how they would describe their school, a Lewis & Clark response went something like, “It’s a really chill, open environment. Everyone knows everyone else. We call our professors by their first names and go over to their houses for dinner. The study abroad opportunities are amazing. And I love that we can go skiing or rafting with Campus Outdoors every weekend.” My favorite UGA response was simply this: “Go DAWGS! Get ‘em! Sick ‘em! Woof woof woof woof woof WOOF WOOOOOOOOOOF!!!!”
Needless to say, my brand of anthropology was not particularly enlightening or revolutionary. And I think it’s fair to say that I was definitely not on track to be the next Margaret Mead. In contrast, the three main characters in Lily King’s new novel, Euphoria, take their anthropology a little more seriously.
The book is set in the New Guinea Territory in the early-1930s. From the publisher’s blurb:
English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years, studying a tribe on the Sepik River in the Territory of New Guinea with little success. Increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when he encounters the famous and controversial Nell Stone and her wry, mercurial Australian husband Fen. Bankson is enthralled by the magnetic couple whose eager attentions pull him back from the brink of despair.
Nell and Fen have their own reasons for befriending Bankson. Emotionally and physically raw from studying the blood-thirsty Mumbanyo tribe, the couple is hungry for new discovery. But when Bankson leads them to the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and emotional firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control. Ultimately, their groundbreaking work will make history, but not without sacrifice.
Despite growing fame for a recent book she wrote on the Solomons, Nell continues her anthropological pursuits in the field. Her motivation is simple–she is constantly seeking euphoria:
It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment, the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.
But Fen’s and Bankson’s motivations are not as straight-forward. Fen does not seem to want to study the Tam as much as he wants to become one. And Bankson is more interested in studying Nell than he is in studying any of the Sepik tribes.
Anthropology was a fairly new science in the 1930s, and the “study” habits of Nell, Fen, and Bankson (though profoundly more serious than my own) raise serious ethical and moral questions about how and whether anthropological studies like theirs should be performed.
When a book starts as follows, you fear that it can’t maintain this level of intensity:
As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.
‘Another dead baby,’ Fen said.
He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.
Ahead lay the bright break in the curve of dark green land where the boat would go. She concentrated on that. She did not turn around again. The few Mumbanyo on the beach were singing and beating the death gong for them, but she did not look at them a last time. Every now and then when the four rowers—all standing, calling back to their people or out to other canoes—pulled at the same time, a small gust of wind struck her damp skin. Her lesions prickled and tightened, as if hurrying to heal in the brief dry air.
Despite such an in-your-face beginning, my interest did not wane as quickly as I feared it would. In the first twenty pages, there is mention of cannibalism (anthropological cannibalism, no less), a suicide attempt, and discussions of the Solomons’ “salacious behavior on tropical beaches.” So, I remained hopeful that the book would pack a punch. And, at least for the first half of the book, it did.
Nell, Fen, and Bankson are based loosely on a famous trio of anthropologists: Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune (Mead’s second husband), and Gregory Bateson (Mead’s third husband). The book is obviously well-researched, and it shines where that research is molded and transformed into the pages of the book. The first half of the book had me enthralled. The descriptions of their studies (cannibalistic tribes who murder their first-born, tribes whose celebratory ceremonies involve cross-dressing, tribes with powerful and controlling women who pleasure each other with stones, tribes with kids who begin having hetero- and homosexual sex around age thirteen) are fascinating.
Unfortunately, as it goes along, the book becomes more concerned with the relationships among Nell, Fen, and Bankson and focuses less on their work or the Tam. I wish that King had continued to focus on the anthropologists’ differing attitudes toward their work and the tribes, as opposed to their attitudes toward each other. That would have helped maintain the pace and intensity that the beginning of the book held all the way to the end.
All that said, this book was actually much better than I expected it to be (historical fiction is usually not my favorite).
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2014
- An Indie Next List Pick for June 2014
Who should read it: Tina (i.e., people looking for interesting book club books. This book raises some great ethical questions that would lead to interesting group discussion); fans of historical fiction who are drawn to books with unique and interesting settings. And, if you enjoyed Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, you’ll like this one, too.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon: