Although the jacket will tell you that this book is inspired by the story of real people, leave that aside while you are reading. For King's novel is enthralling in its own terms, both about the early days of anthropological study in the 1930s, and as a hot-blooded tale about inspiration, rivalry, and desire. The setting in New Guinea. Australian ethnographer Schyler Fenwick and his wife Nell Stone have just come downriver after an unproductive stay with a tribe known as the Mumbanyo. At least it was unproductive for her; Fen, as he is called, would have liked to stay, but Nell is the decision-maker of the two, having just published a best-seller that has eclipsed her husband's dry academic monograph. They run into an English anthropologist called Andrew Bankson, the book's main narrator. He is lonely after spending two years with a tribe on the Sepik River, and urges Nell and Fen to transfer their study to another tribe a few hours away from him by boat, known as the Tam.
Although he tries to keep his distance, it is clear that Andrew has fallen for Nell, and she finds she can have conversations with him that she cannot with her husband. But the triangle of desire does not play out as simply as that. The Tam (and Andrew's tribe, the Kiona) appear to have different customs from most of their neighbors, with some striking reversals of the normal gender roles. Separately and together, the three scientists make important discoveries, including the sketch of a quasi-Cartesian classification system that could lead to a Unified Theory of Anthropology. But they are also aware of the biases brought by their own personalities; Andrew wonders at one point whether an anthropologist's field report says more about the people being studied or the author doing the writing. Almost everything they see around them reflects on the differences and affinities between them, not only sexually but intellectually too.
There is a passage later in the book when Andrew and Nell are typing up field notes side by side. He is factual, analytical: "In light of this conversation with Chanta, and the proximity of his native Pinlau to the Kiona, one concludes that there were other tribes in the vicinity who also practiced some sort of transvestite ritual." Nell, however, pours out impressions in an unpunctuated stream of consciousness: "Tavi sits still her eyes drooping nearly asleep body swaying and Mudama carefully pinching the lice flicking the bugs in the fire the zinging of her fingernails through the strands of hair, concentration tenderness love peace pieta." She says that if she can remember the FEELING of the afternoon, then she can recall all the details she didn't think important enough to write down. It is how a writer works, too -- at least a writer like Lily King. The accuracy of her imaginative recall is palpable throughout the entire novel, which convinced me easily as much as similar situations in Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER or Hanya Yanagihara's THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES.
Early in the novel, Nell talks about a moment about two months into any study, "when you think you've finally got a handle on the place [...], the briefest, purest euphoria." Lily King's greatest achievement here is to suspend almost her entire novel in that period of excited wonder. It makes for thrilling reading.
If you just want to read the novel as fiction, stop reading this now and go for it. Otherwise....
The back cover says the book was "inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead." I would say more than inspired by; virtually all the back-story is taken from real life, with only the names changed. Nell Stone, of course, is Mead, and Nell's best-seller is a thinly-disguised version of the latter's COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA. Schyler Fenwick is Reo Fortune, Mead's second husband; although changed from a New Zealander to an Australian, his contributions to cultural anthropology are virtually identical to those of his fictional counterpart. Andrew Bankson is the fictional name of English Anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who played an even larger role in Mead's life than Andrew does here; the details of Bankson's early life, including his Cambridge upbringing, difficult relationship with his father, and the deaths of his two brothers, might come word for word from a biography of Bateson. The older anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who plays a significant background role, is actually a real person, and her lesbian affair with Margaret/Nell is also probably true.
But if you know such facts, or are tempted to look them up, do not imagine that King's novel will necessarily follow the paths taken by these figures in real life. It seems that King set herself a double goal: to stay as true to history as possible in all the back-story, but in the time-frame of the novel itself to be guided only by the psychology of the three individuals. She describes what might have happened, not what actually did. But so acute are her powers of empathy that her fiction has all the compulsive reality of truth.
on November 14, 2014
No, "Euphoria" isn't a new perfume by Calvin Klein but the name Nell Stone, gives to that ecstatic feeling of discovery: "It's that moment," she rhapsodizes to fellow anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, "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."
Euphoria by Lily King is a historical novel set in 1930s that tracks the aftermath of a chance meeting between three anthropologists: Nell Stone, an American; her Aussie husband Schuyler Fenwick (Fen); and Andrew Bankson, a Brit. The three are studying various tribes who live along the riverbanks of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. When the anthropologists first come together at a Christmas party at a local government station, all three of them seem to be at the lowest points in their lives. After just a few months embedded with the Mumbanyo tribe, Nell and Fen have decided to pull up stakes and head back to New York and regroup. They seem to fear for their lives as they beat their hasty retreat on a canoe. A specter of violence hangs in the air. Their actual transgressions or fears aren't clear but what is obvious is that they are demoralized by their failure. Meanwhile, Andrew has just been rescued from the river after a botched suicide attempt (rocks in his coat pocket a la Virginia Woolf). He is depressed and lonely, haunted by the memories of his brothers who died in the Great War, and by the disappointment of his mother, who disparages his work and hardly considers anthropology a science or worthy of study.
From the get-go, while there is no direct acknowledgment of marital abuse in Nell and Fen's marriage, it is strongly hinted at: Nell's broken glasses, her broken ankle and bedraggled state; the carelessness and callousness of their lovemaking in one early scene; Fen's physical abuse of one local, and his sarcasm and jealous sniping. There is a strong vein of rancor in their marriage. Nell's success from her best-selling ethnography “The Children of Kirakira" eats at Fen's delicate ego, and more so since they depend financially on her celebrity, while he still struggles to make a name for himself. Over the course of the novel, we also learn of other reasons for Fen's bitterness. Nell wanted to abandon the study of the Mumbanyo, while Fen wanted to stay longer, in particular to find and recover a carved flute that he believes will propel him to scientific fame. The undercurrent of discontent in that relationship is so faint and yet penetrating, like an odor you're not quite sure of, and this escalating emotional tension is a testament to King's writerly talents.
Enthralled by the couple and especially by Nell, Andrew manages to convince the two to stay, suggesting another tribe for them to study. He finds them the Tam tribe on a site just a few hours from his own work on the Kionas. Over the next few weeks, the three develop a robust friendship that is rooted in an appreciation in each other's intellectual strengths. Professionally, the three are very different in their approaches to ethnographic research. Andrew is the consummate scholar, reserved and careful. He approaches anthropological observation with the deliberateness of a scientist working in a laboratory. Fen is the opposite, a daredevil, trying everything. He partakes in hallucinatory agents with gusto. He enthusiastically dons penis gourds and dances with abandon among the tribesmen. Nothing shocks him, he tells Andrew, not the cannibalism, raids, or mutilation they see. Nell also shares her husband's empathy but it comes in a different form—it is propelled by deep empathy and warmth. In a journal entry, she writes: "I can feel the relationships, the likes & dislikes in the room in a way I never could if I could speak. You don't realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don't have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense." When Andrew insists that the inhabitants might not have a capacity for self-reflection and reflexive analysis, Nell fights him. "The are human, with fully functioning human minds," she insists. "If I didn't believe they shared my humanity entirely, I wouldn't be here."
Each researcher's differences are starkly reflected in the way they take notes. Fen never takes notes; a telling marker of his hubris. Nell writes constantly and with great dramatic flair. For example: "Tavi sits still her eyes drooping nearly asleep body swaying and Mudama carefully pinching the lice flicking the bugs in the fire the zinging of her fingernails through the strands of hair concentration tenderness love peace pieta." Andrew's notes look like this: "In light of this conversation with Chanta, and the proximity of his native Pinlau to the Kiona, one concludes that there were other tribes in the vicinity who also once practiced some sort of transvestite ritual." Nell's notes read like a novel, a story that transports and reminds the reader of the immediacy of a distinct moment; Andrew's notes read like a report. It's in that moment, I think, that Nell and Andrew realize consciously that they love each other.
By the last fifty or so pages, the story picks up with brute force, and the love triangle explodes, leading to another hasty retreat from the riverbanks, and a series of savage acts and cruelties that made me sit up fast and almost drop the book. *SPOILER AHEAD: This is a story that doesn't end well for our trio. None of the three get what they want: knowledge (Nell), fame (Fen), love (Andrew). What King seems to be showing is how gratification for any of these is an illusion—much like the spurious euphoria mentioned by Nell. *
With a deft hand, King gives us a beautiful story about love and desire. Set as it is in the early days of modern anthropology, Euphoria is an unusual stage for a story, and it is ripe with drama, apprehension, and emotional discovery. The novel is refreshing in that the love story, as central as it is, doesn't veer into staged opera or flights of melodrama. It felt raw, primordial; it felt real. In fact, the last scene of the book is one of the most tender, intimate recollections of lost love I've ever read. There is a meta-ness to the reading experience, too. Just as the characters are studying this alien tribal life and culture, we are studying Nell, Fen, and Andrew, with King feeding us clues that illuminate all their simmering resentments, stoic traumas, and stifled desires. This interpretative engagement is what makes this slim novel such a powerful read.
on September 21, 2014
I inhaled this book in the space of less than 24 hours: fast reading for me even though it's only 257 pages. Set in remote Papau New Guinea in the 1930s, this is a fictionalized account of the brief collaboration of three real-life anthropologists: Margaret Mead, her then-husband Reo Fortune, and her future husband Gregory Bateson. Here they are renamed Nell Stone, Schuyler Fenwick and Andrew Bankson, respectively.
It is a fascinating tale of human relationships and anthropology; unusually for fiction, the author makes the characters' work a major aspect of the book rather than a background detail or subplot, and questions about anthropology are front and center: How involved ought scientists become in the lives of their subjects? Can anthropologists truly be objective, or do they project their own desires or prejudices onto the societies they study? What methods are acceptable for gaining information about a culture? By necessity, the three protagonists are intensely involved in their work, and one of the book's most animated scenes involves Nell's receiving a colleague's manuscript (a fictional analogue of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture) in the mail, and the three spending all night reading and arguing about it. (That doesn't mean the novel is dry, but that the author does an excellent job of showing the power of ideas and intellectual growth.)
But it soon becomes clear that the three approach their field from very different perspectives. Nell, already famous for a ground-breaking book based on a prior expedition, wants to fall in love with local cultures and erects no boundaries between herself and the people she studies. Fen seems drawn to fieldwork primarily to escape strictures of "civilized" behavior, and to be the most important man in town. Bankson, drawn to anthropology as an intellectual pursuit, holds himself aloof from the locals and doesn't seem to enjoy fieldwork at all. Of course attraction grows between Nell and Bankson, with dramatic consequences.
Euphoria has an engaging plot, and the three protagonists are complex and believable folk, set against a colorful backdrop. The local tribespeople remain in the background, though they do have more individuality, and more of a voice, than their counterparts in similar books such as Patchett's State of Wonder. It helps that the anthropologists are quick to learn local languages and spend substantial time interacting with people and trying to understand them. The writing is good, though the point-of-view is unnecessarily jumpy; the majority of the book is told from Bankson's first-person perspective, but it also includes third-person sections following Nell and excerpts from her journal.
Beneath the surface, though, this is a dark story, in ways that aren't ever really dealt with. Fen turns out to be a very ugly person, but his crimes are generally mentioned briefly and ambiguously rather than openly; those not paying close attention could easily miss most of it. I understand the value of subtlety in fiction, but such coyness feels out of place in a novel with an explicit and not entirely consensual sex scene on page 11. And it's especially disconcerting when Fen is based on a real person; the author should have owned her claims one way or the other, at least by explaining in her Author's Note either their basis in the historical record, or that she invented them for storytelling purposes. Otherwise, it just looks like defaming the dead. I am also uncomfortable with her making Nell a victim in ways Margaret Mead was not. Is King pandering to the crowd inclined to find any successful female character "unlikeable" unless her vulnerability is constantly emphasized? It's hard to imagine anyone disliking the big-hearted, enthusiastic Nell, though at least in the book she is not much for monogamy and again, we don't know to what extent her personality was invented for the novel.
So, an enjoyable book, yes, but don't take it for history. I liked it, but in addition to displaying the strong storytelling skills that King has in abundance, I do expect historical fiction authors to take responsibility for their deviations from the record, and am disappointed that that was not done here.
Three anthropologists form a circumstantial friendship in the 1930s while studying tribes in Papua, New Guinea. American Nell Stone (who is inspired by Margaret Mead) already has a best selling book on natives of the Solomon Islands. Nell's Australian husband, Fen, is jealous of her success, and is often reproachful and competitive. He is desperate to make a name for himself, and, instead of collaborating with Nell, he keeps his work hidden. However, Fen admits to a genuine regard for his wife's work.
The couple had recently studied the Mumbanyo, a frighteningly barbaric tribe, and left abruptly, at Nell's request, resigning to move to Australia to study the Aboriginal peoples. Fen wanted to stay in New Guinea; he is after a totemic flute that he learned of during their last days with the Mumbanyo, and believes that securing it is the key to his glory. However, out of love and dedication to Nell, he capitulated.
Andrew Bankston is a tall, lanky, wistful anthropologist who recently failed at suicide. He met Nell and Fen quite spontaneously, and talked them out of Australia and back into New Guinea, promising to find them a stimulating tribe to study. He corrals them on his motorized boat, and helps them settle in with the Tam people, about seven hours from where he is studying with the Kionas. Periodically, he comes to visit, and their developing friendship provides much of the adventure and drama of the novel. Each of them has their own talents and approach to ethnography. Fen thrives on experience, on doing, saturating in the culture by joining the inhabitants, almost impetuously. He's a hustler, and can learn languages swiftly--"he absorbs words like sunlight." Nell is a thinker with a deep empathy and imagination. Language is limited, in her estimation.
"You have to pay much more attention when you can't understand the words. Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away...words aren't always he most reliable thing."
Andrew is an excellent theorist, who ponders the science itself.
"I find I am more interested in this question of subjectivity, and the limited lens of the anthropologist...Perhaps all science is merely self-investigation."
The study of cultural differences by these individuals is not a tendentious prop to raise our consciousness. Rather, there's more of an allegory that coils and tightens, and ultimately astonishes. The intersection between the anthropologists and the tribes that they study is the predominant theme and the fulcrum of suspense in this story. I finished this novel a few days ago, but the parallels between the text, subject matter, and reader continue to heighten and captivate me. As the story progressed, it revealed clues that were intensified by the reader's observation of the anthropologists and the their immersion in the cultures.
"When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read their analysis?"
And, too, there's the correlation to quantum physics that Nell and Andrew consider, i.e. that objectivity is impossible because the application of observation changes the matter being studied.
Although narrated in the first person by Andrew, the journal entries by Nell provide the potent drama, often in a subtle manner of extemporaneous observation. I felt like I was living with the Tam people, and exploring their behaviors and customs.
"Fen claims that if you just let go of your brain you find another brain, the group brain, the collective brain, and that it is an exhilarating form of human connection that we have lost in our embrace of the individual except when we go to war. Which is my point exactly."
I applaud everything about this novel--setting, characters, prose, and story. However, it is the voice of the novel--Andrew's and Nell's--that moved me the most. Their back-stories of past losses, and the disclosure of how Fen and Nell met, add dimension to the present. There's a lightness of spirit and yet a poignant acuity of their deepest thoughts and perceptions. The author avoids reductive and clichéd writing and characterizations. This was fresh, buoyant, and tender storytelling.
I've read numerous novels that embrace anthropology; however, this was more fully realized than Berlinski's FIELDWORK, less conspicuous than Yanagihara's PEOPLE IN THE TREES, and not cerebrally self-conscious like Rush's MATING (although I enjoyed all of those books). Lily King's approach is more intimate, and the presence of the reader as observer is exploratory and essential. EUPHORIA is emotionally compelling sans melodrama, gripping in its taut finesse, compassion, and colossal humanity.
"And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world."
on July 8, 2014
I cannot at all trust the credibility of this book in its portrayal of New Guinea and its people. Three times in descriptive passages monkeys are referred to. For example, on page 36 we are told of 'monkeys caterwauling on high branches'. As New Guinea has no monkeys this is a fundamental error revealing that the author has little knowledge of the country, its flora and fauna and probably of its people, and so may have misled us in other ways. An unforgiveable mistake, a failure of essential research by an author and a display of embarrassingly ignorance of the country in which the novel is set. No mention of tree kangaroos. The story is very much focussed on the relationships between the three main (European) characters while the depictions of the local people and their culture, and the natural world, is scanty and little more than a backdrop to the interpersonal drama. Euphoria may be a good read as an adventure story, and stimulating of reflection on the undertaking of anthropological field work at that time, albeit with all its colonialist baggage. There was, however, little real attention given to the perspective of the local people and their response to the presence of these western visitors, and to the shock of 'first contact', again revealing that the colonialist mindset is extant today.
on February 4, 2015
I'm not sure what to say about this book. First of all, there are no monkeys in New Guinea which makes me suspicious of other facts. As to the story, the characters needed far more fleshing out. Fen and the flute were never really adequately explained, and the ending felt as if it had suddenly dropped off a cliff. However, having said all of that, reading about the rituals and cultures of the various tribes was fascinating; and it does make one consider our lack of respect for those so different.
Our fiction book group at our local library read and discussed this book last night. It provoked much discussion and received diverse reactions. It is based loosely in some instances on the anthropologist Margaret Mead when she was involved in a tangled triangle of relationships while doing research in New Guinea. The primary objection to the book is that some of the readers knew some details about Mead's life - one attendee had heard her speak at her college - and when the book diverged greatly from Mead's life in significant ways, the group had issues with it. I didn't have issues as the most I knew of Mead was her name and field of study. Here's some of the other points members of our book group discussed:
* what kind of genre is it? Alternate history?
* the publisher shouldn't have said it was based on Mead because of the ending
* loved the button detail at the end with the blue thread in the museum
* group found compass idea fascinating
* loved the subtle development of characters. Nobody liked Fen, folks were divided on Bankson and Nell whom I really enjoyed as characters.
* wanted to ask author why Samuel Butler was named as reference for the story
* loved the anthropological analysis of the society woman
* one of the attendees has a phallic shaped gourd at her home painted orange - we all want to see it after hearing about it so much in the story
* our librarian likes to give us a Non-Western perspective - get us out of the US and Europe as settings - this book accomplished that in spades
This was a successful book for our group as it provoked intriguing discussion and was an interesting detour from the usual fare. The writing was superb. We liked the juxtaposition of Bankson's narration with journal entries of Nell and Helen's book. Brilliant work, really. Many would be interested in reading another book by the author if it's not too dark.
on December 10, 2014
Maybe it's because I just came back from the Middle Sepik region of Papua New Guinea that I noticed this story is severely flawed in its depiction of the country and the people. It may succeed as a modern love triangle, but as context for the complexity of the world's most recently discovered tribes, languages (over 800--half the world's languages spoken here) and code of behaviors, it fails miserably. The natives seemed like cardboard cut-outs to me, decorating the background for the real action of the story, which was the story of the three "anthropologists." The inconsistencies and inaccuracies detracted from the story and made me realize that while the author may have read historical documents, she never set foot in the true environment of her story. Go elsewhere, like "Savage Harvest," for a real story about this island and its people.
on June 18, 2014
What a gorgeous, heart-breaking novel, rich with detail and human understanding! Though fiction, it breathes with the lives it describes, and could be taken as anthropological text, not only of the peoples of the times and places it is set(and loosely based upon), but also of us supposedly modern humans who love, hurt, inspire, screw things up, and discover ourselves in others. It is a magnificent read, and one that should light up a broad spectrum of those who love books.
It unspools as if on old super-8 stock, but is stunningly clear, too. All scratchy, sepia tones, and shaky, real movements, and riveting in its raw look at things seldom captured in such a way. All too easy to get so caught up in the lives of Nell and Bankson and Fen, that you forget about the technical wizardry of King's laying words down end-to-end, in a structure that is spot-on, and provocative. You seemlessly weave in and out of the two primary narrators' perspectives, and it would seem that you are in different heads, but then, maybe not. Maybe you are exclusively in the head of the anthropologist, who makes it seem like there are objective bits of fact to be seen and explored, but really you are seeing the people, and the culture, as the anthropologist sees them. And this is just many of the incredible facets of this book: that it can put you, fundamentally, in the position of being the anthropoligist. Piecing together the narrative of a people, and of people, from the bits that well up in the river of history. A stunning literary achievement, that is a page turner, too.
And oh my god, some of those sentences! Kudos to King for crafting a number of unforgettable, incredibly layered, finely wrought sentences... This would be one of those times where words, or at least my words, cannot even get close to describing... Well, I suppose it is better to let her words wash over you, and arrest you all on their own.
"Euphoria" is such a varied collection of types of love, and care, and passion, but also of carelessness, and ambition, and loathing. This is not a summery love tale, or a bucolic version of long ago folks; it is straight-forward and honest, ripe with disease, and rot, and human failure, as much as it is with sublime intangibles. It is beautiful -- absolutely -- but beautiful because of the care King takes in her raw portrayal of these peoples, as seen through others' eyes.
If I were tasked to choose a painting to cast as perfect analog to this book (which somehow seems apt... not just because of the intriguing cover of the novel, all bright colors and thick-paint-streaks, but because it would be a choice of a very particular vision, a well-thought-out version of a scene or story, as rendered by an artist, with great intuition. A powerfully affecting visual rendering.), it would be truly difficult. You could go so many different ways! The photo-realism of the mid-Nineteenth Century (reacting to the new technology of cameras, to new ways to 'see' and record!)? The earthiness of a Gauguin 'Primitivist' portrait? The electricity and brilliance of a Matisse, both intellectually stimulating in form, and striking in color and kinetic vibrancy? Perhaps the raw, moody emotion of abstraction and subtle color of a Rothko? Better yet, the incredible mash-up (waaay before that was a term) of a painting like Henri Rousseau's "The Dream", painted just before the artist died, and imagined from his avid reading, and visits to the Paris zoo and local hothouses. That one would definitely be in the running...
I suppose I might alight on Magritte's "The Titanic Days", completed in the year that Margaret Mead's "Coming Of Age In Samoa" was published and several years before Nell, Fen and Bankson meet up in "Euphoria". Using the age old tools of blues and greys and a myriad of skin tones, and of the story of struggle between a man and a woman (or more likely between 'Woman' and 'Man'), he renders something modern, and eerily beautiful, but unsettling, and maybe a little nauseating. It is nothing if not arresting. My guess is it was long in the making, an elaborate process to realize what appears to be a simple vision, or maybe the manifestation of a bit of a dream. You'd really need the whole of a bunch of museums to even begin to get at all that is in this book, but for a thought-experiment, the sophisticated, inventive simplicity of "The Titanic Days" will do. For me. I'd be curious to hear what painting you would choose....
For this novel inspires conversation and will confound people in their efforts to slot it into a single category, as much as it will cause introspection and reflection. It is one of those things, I think, that people will try to peg, so as to describe to others, but will have to go off into other mediums to sort of give an idea of what the words did to them.
But, Lily King's "Euphoria", is a book, not a painting, and it is well-worth reading. My guess is, it is well-worth re-reading, and I look forward to my next trip into it, so as to get even more out of this stunning gem of a book.
I can truthfully say that about all four of King's books, but this one, even more so. To quote King, quoting Nell Stone, who is talking about her work: "...at that moment the place feels entirely yours. Its the briefest, purest euphoria." That is the experience I had of reading this novel. I wanted it to go on longer, but was amazed by the purity of my elation, my brief euphoria.
I urge you to go find a copy and dig in!
on June 18, 2014
Having read the stellar review in the New York Times, I cracked this book with great anticipation. Sad to say, it did not live up to expectations. Euphoria has many things going for it -- believable characters, excellent writing, and broad intellectual sweep -- but it didn't hold my interest. I WANTED to WANT to read it, but each evening I approached my task with a sense of obligation if not outright dread. The author hammers home some her points with too little subtly. Possessiveness = Bad, for instance. And in the end, the plodding plot and endless meandering meditations on culture grew downright boring. If you approach the book with less inflated expectations than mine -- think of it as an opportunity to learn more about anthropology in the 30s -- you might get more out of it that I did.