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."