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Feb 18

Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King

What’s It About

Set for the most part in 1930s New Guinea, American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen meet Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist, who introduces them to the Tam, an artistic, spiritual and female dominated tribe.  As the three anthropologists become absorbed in their investigation of the Tam, their relationship grows increasingly complicated, fueled by love, guilt and violence.

Should I Read It?

Yes – but with reservations.  The characters of Nell, Fen and Andrew Bankson are based on Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson.  (So in this alternate history it’s William Bankson, not Bateson, who coins the term “genetics”).  These changes gives King the freedom and opportunity to tell her own story, one that still cleaves to historical events – Mead and Bateson did fall in love with each other in New Guinea – but takes a very different and darker turn (which I won’t spoil here).

While the love-triangle between the three anthropologists is the main driver of the novel, the best scenes beautifully mix together the intimate and intellectual discoveries made by Nell and Andrew. However, I did have issues with the ending which I thought was unwarranted and tasteless (more in the Commentary).

Representative Paragraph

Bankson observes Nell:

Though she was looking at me, she hadn’t heard. She was still with her work. She was wearing a tulip bark ribbon, too, just above her elbow. I wondered what they made of this woman who bossed them around and wrote down their reactions. It was funny how it all seemed more vulgar watching someone else do it. I felt like my mother, with this sudden distaste for it. And yet she was good at it. Better than I was. Systematic, organized, ambitious. She was a chameleon, with a way of not imitating them but reflecting them. There seemed to be nothing conscious or calculated about it. It was simply the way she worked. I feared I’d never shake my Englishman Among the Savages pose, despite the real respect I had come to feel for the Kiona. But she with only seven weeks under her belt was more of the Tam than I ever would be of any tribe, no matter how long I stayed. No wonder Fen had grown discouraged.

Commentary

Not surprisingly, most of the questions Lily King has been asked about Euphoria deal with Margaret Mead, her relationships, her sexuality, and the fact that she was a trailblazer in the field of anthropology.  When Nell Stone is mentioned, she feels more like a placeholder than the main character of a novel.  And yet when you read Euphoria, it’s easy to forget that Nell is based on a historical figure.  While Mead might be front and centre in the mind of interviewers and reviewers, Nell Stone’s vibrant, passionate, sometimes overwhelming personality takes centre stage in the novel.

Don’t get me wrong, when I finished Euphoria I was compelled to learn more about Margaret Mead.  In particular I was interested to pick out the points of divergence, where King had followed the course of history and where she’d allowed her characters to take a different path.  It’s fitting that in a novel about an anthropologist who experienced tribal life without prejudice or pre-conceived notions, that King would adopt the same attitude in writing her novel.  There’s nothing preconceived about Nell, Fen or Andrew.  They are their own people, no matter who they might be based on.

Until the final pages, Euphoria is a wonderful novel about exploration, both intellectual and intimate.  This is best evidenced by Nell and Andrew’s development of The Grid, a schematic that would allow them to categorise not only tribes but other cultures and people.  King infuses a level of physicality and emotional intensity to the discovery:

We kept at it.  The sun came up and went down again.  We believed we were in the throes of a big theory.  We could see our chalk on university blackboards.  It felt like we were putting a messy disorganized unlabeled world in order.  It felt like decoding.  It felt like liberation… For long stretches of time it felt like we were crawling around in each other’s brain.

Then there’s the inclusion of the fictitious Tam.  As a metaphor for empowerment, the Tam might feel like an authorial cheat in that they are a female dominant tribe that conveniently and neatly aligns with Nell’s sense of independence.  However, whereas the woman of the Tam have carved out a level of freedom in their own society, Nell’s empowerment is entirely contingent on her location. In New Guinea she can be free and passionate and wild with her opinions and the men in her life.  But when she comes back to “civilisation” the norms of her own society constrain her.  This culminates in her death at the hands of a jealous Fen who (as heavily implied by Bankson though not proven) throws Nell overboard on their way back to New York.

While I acknowledge that Nell is more than just a thin copy of Margaret Mead, her death is the one point of the novel where I wish King had aligned Nell’s life with history. There is some evidence that Reo Fortune abused Mead, however history (and Wikipedia) tells us that she survived her journey back to civilisation, married to Gregory Bateson. For the rest of her life Mead continued to trailblaze, publishing significant work on tribal cultures.  In light of this, vibrant, passionate, breathless Nell Stone deserved more than a cheap, unwarranted and tasteless death.

Still, the ending aside, for most of its length, Euphoria is a wonderful novel that mixes together the exhilaration of discovery with the intensity of intimacy and love.

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