Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’: love among the anthropologists
Lily King’s masterful novel “Euphoria,” based on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, tells the story of a love triangle in the remotest provinces of New Guinea. King appears June 25 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. and June 26 at Ravenna Third Place Books.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Euphoria” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 25, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com). She will appear at a lunch at 1 p.m. Thursday, June 26, at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle; $40, includes lunch and a signed copy of the book, reservations required (206-525-2347 or www.ravenna.thirdplacebooks.com).
Lily King’s masterful new novel, “Euphoria” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 256 pp., $25), begins so deep in the action that the reader is captured on Page 1. Nell and Fen, married anthropologists, are fleeing from a New Guinea village they have studied; a death gong beats behind their canoe, and the Mumbanyo villagers throw something after them, “another dead baby.”
The ambiguity of their ignominious retreat sets up a thrilling and beautifully composed novel set in 1933, in the early days of anthropology, about culture, love and possession.
Nell Stone, whose character is based on the pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead, has written a controversial but acclaimed book about coming of age in the Solomon Islands. She and Fen, an abusive and mercurial bully, meet Andrew Bankson, a British anthropologist, who has been studying a tribe on the Sepik River. Lonely, depressed and unexpectedly energized by Nell’s conversation, Bankson persuades them not to leave New Guinea on the heels of their failure with the Mumbanyo tribe, and takes them up the Sepik to find another tribe near the one he is studying.
Thus begins a complicated love triangle that is as cerebral and collaborative as it is erotic.
Since the anthropologists are competitive and territorial, they put a premium on finding a tribe worthy of their time and analysis. Nell and Fen reject one village because it has no beach, and another because it has “weak art.”
Finally, they choose a village on Lake Tam with the Tam people to begin their new study, while more details of their experience with the last tribe, the Mumbanyo, emerge. Fen has unfinished business with the Mumbanyo that will ultimately propel the anthropologists out of this place as well, with miserable consequences.
Bankson, whose character is based on the anthropologist Gregory Bateson (Mead’s second husband), worries that the natives are “toadying up to the white man,” and that the white anthropologists’ presence changes who the natives are.
Nell and Bankson are intensely drawn to each other, “crawling around in each other’s brains” on questions of culture and theory.
She reflects that the Tam custom of cutting off a finger to mourn for someone is no more remarkably strange than her own family’s refusal to say her dead sister’s name ever again when she was growing up.
Nell’s observations about the Tam women’s independence take hold while the tensions in her marriage explode. She knows that Fen is withholding information and not collaborating because of his jealousy of her book and professional reputation.
She notes in her journal how his behavior curbs her own: “If I were married to a banker would I be able to relish this success more? All the downplaying I must do starts to rub off on me.”
Fen’s need for power drives him to a monumental theft, and precipitates yet another flight from a tribal village.
A great novelist is like an anthropologist, examining what humans do by habit and custom. King excels in creating vignettes from Nell’s fieldwork as well as from the bitter conversation of the three love-torn collaborators, making the familiar strange and the strange acceptable. This is a riveting and provocative novel, absolutely first-rate.
Wingate Packard is a Seattle-based teacher and writer.