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A Question of Balance,
This review is from: Euphoria (Hardcover)
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Lily King has traveled a long way from the emotional territory she journeyed to in Father of the Rain…all the way to Papua New Guinea, circa 1932. Here she sets up her characters – the American anthropologist Nell, inspired by Margaret Mead…her mercurial Aussie husband Fen…and our narrator, Bankson, an emotionally damaged Brit who has been studying a river tribe for many years.
All have arrived at this destination with their emotional baggage. Nell has written a controversial best-seller about Samoan child-raising and is dealing with fertility issues. Fen is suffering professional envy and he doesn’t want to study the natives as well as become one. And Bankson? Haunted by the death of his two older brothers, feeling alone and isolated, he is primed to ignite a firestorm in their lives.
The key is establishing and maintaining a precarious form of balance. As Nell writes in her journal, “…there is something about finding the balance to one’s nature – perhaps a culture that flourishes is a culture that has found a similar balance amongst its people.”
But balances can quickly toppled. A triangle, by its very nature, suggests unbalance and the personalities of Nell and Bankson stand in contrast to the often out-of-control nature of Fen. As they struggle with their own inadequacies (Bankson says: “…I am bad luck in the field, utterly ineffective. I couldn’t even manage to kill myself properly”), they also risk overturning the carefully-honed balances of another culture.
The book has a lot to say about these cultural balances, presenting Ruth Benedict (a real-life anthropologist who wrote Patterns of Culture) as an offstage presence. Every culture has its own unique goals and orients its society in the direction of these goals. What happens when our own egos and greed begin to countermand these goals?
As in many journeys, there are times when the book veers off-course. The tribe that Nell studies, the Tam, is female-dominated and sexually aware, throwing a match on the physical feelings that are smoldering among the three. There are times when it seems that the book becomes a little off balance: is the main focus the passionate love triangle, is it the way that the study of native cultures changes those who study it? Both can be included but it’s hard to have it both ways.
This territory (strangers in a strange land) has been explored in other books: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible and Mischa Berlinski’s excellent Fieldwork, to name three. Lily King places her own spin on it and, while she doesn’t totally succeed, she brings the readers on a worthy ride.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 3, 2014 6:32:32 AM PDT
Daniel Myers says:
I've just read your excellent review, and have also noticed that you and I have had overlapping tastes of late. You're much better at laying out the specifics to the reader. I'm glad that you mentioned Berlinski's Fieldwork, which I read recently and to which I kept comparing this book whilst reading it. This book, it seems to me, suffers more than a bit by the comparison. But, if one is willing to follow the book to its end, it - as you so aptly put it - provides the readers with a worthy ride.
Posted on Apr 3, 2014 2:27:07 PM PDT
Roger Brunyate says:
Or THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES? This does look interesting, though perhaps of the wait-to-see-it-in-the-store variety. It's funny that you say that triangles are inherently unstable; the immediate image I have is that of the pyramid, the most stable form there is! Roger.
Posted on May 13, 2014 11:41:34 AM PDT
Roger Brunyate says:
Well, I read it, reviewed it, loved it. I never felt that lack of balance at all, because I felt that your two themes (the mores of the place and the tensions between the people) in fact reflected one another. For my money, King CAN do both. Not taking my own advice, and looking up the real stories of all the characters as I was reading, actually increased my fascination, as I watched with what beautiful balance (yes) King built her fictional afterstory upon thoroughly factual foundations. Roger.
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