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Euphoria (Deckle edge) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 3, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, June 2014: If I tell you that Euphoria is a novel loosely based on the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, your eyes will start to glaze over. Well, they shouldn’t--not when the novel is as wonderful as this one. Its both romantic and intelligent, a combination you don’t need to be a scientist to know doesn’t appear often in nature. Mead, a controversial character in real life, is here transmuted into the equally complex (and somewhat sickly) Nell Stone, who has made a reputation for herself by studying native tribes in New Guinea. Her husband, also an anthropologist, is more jealous than dutiful, although he does manage to make her feel inadequate for failing to produce a baby. Enter a charming-but-tortured third anthropologist, who at times seems to be unsure to which of his new friends he’s more attracted. Sparks of the emotional and sexual kind fly, but what’s even more interesting is the portrait of a growing friendship based at least partly on philosophy and attitudes toward “primitive” cultures. You know from the beginning that some bad things are going to happen, but it is to King’s great credit (and the fact that she changes some of the events in Mead’s life) that you can’t really guess what they are. This is the best kind of historical novel--the kind that sent me running to read more about its real-life inspiration. --Sara Nelson
Just after a failed suicide attempt, Andrew Bankson, English anthropologist studying the Kiona tribe in the territory of New Guinea, meets a pair of fellow anthropologists fleeing from a cannibalistic tribe down river. Nell Stone is controversial and well respected. Her rough Australian husband, Fen, is envious of her fame and determined to outshine her. Bankson helps them find a new tribe to study, the artistic, female-dominated Tam. Nell’s quiet assurance and love of the work, and Fen’s easy familiarity, pull Bankson back from the brink. But it is the growing fire between him and Nell that they cannot do anything about. Layered on top of that is Nell’s grasp of the nuances of the Tam, which makes it clear that she will once again surpass Fen. Set between the First and Second World Wars, the story is loosely based on events in the life of Margaret Mead. There are fascinating looks into other cultures and how they are studied, and the sacrifices and dangers that go along with it. This is a powerful story, at once gritty, sensuous, and captivating. --Elizabeth Dickie
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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.
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.