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Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria - Lily King

I inhaled this book in the space of less than 24 hours: fast reading for me even though it’s only 257 pages. Set in remote Papau New Guinea in the 1930s, this is a fictionalized account of the brief collaboration of three real-life anthropologists: Margaret Mead, her then-husband Reo Fortune, and her future husband Gregory Bateson. Here they are renamed Nell Stone, Schuyler Fenwick and Andrew Bankson, respectively.


It is a fascinating tale of human relationships and anthropology; unusually for fiction, the author makes the characters’ work a major aspect of the book rather than a background detail or subplot, and questions about anthropology are front and center: How involved ought scientists become in the lives of their subjects? Can anthropologists truly be objective, or do they project their own desires or prejudices onto the societies they study? What methods are acceptable for gaining information about a culture? By necessity, the three protagonists are intensely involved in their work, and one of the book’s most animated scenes involves Nell’s receiving a colleague's manuscript (a fictional analogue of Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture) in the mail, and the three spending all night reading and arguing about it. (That doesn’t mean the novel is dry, but that the author does an excellent job of showing the power of ideas and intellectual growth.)


But it soon becomes clear that the three approach their field from very different perspectives. Nell, already famous for a ground-breaking book based on a prior expedition, wants to fall in love with local cultures and erects no boundaries between herself and the people she studies. Fen seems drawn to fieldwork primarily to escape strictures of “civilized” behavior, and to be the most important man in town. Bankson, drawn to anthropology as an intellectual pursuit, holds himself aloof from the locals and doesn’t seem to enjoy fieldwork at all. Of course attraction grows between Nell and Bankson, with dramatic consequences.


Euphoria has an engaging plot, and three protagonists are complex and believable folk, set against a colorful backdrop. The local tribespeople remain in the background, though they do have more individuality, and more of a voice, than their counterparts in similar books such as Patchett's State of Wonder. It helps that the anthropologists are quick to learn local languages and spend substantial time interacting with people and trying to understand them. The writing is good, though the point-of-view is unnecessarily jumpy; the majority of the book is told from Bankson’s first-person perspective, but it also includes third-person sections following Nell and excerpts from her journal.


Beneath the surface, though, this is a dark story, in ways that aren’t ever really dealt with. Fen turns out to be a very ugly person, but his crimes are generally mentioned briefly and ambiguously rather than openly; those not paying close attention could easily miss most of it.

He abuses Nell, and caused her to miscarry in her previous pregnancy. He and his brothers sexually abused their sister as a child. And then at the end, he apparently murders Nell. And it's all so hidden in innuendo that I can easily see someone reading this book and missing all of it, though they wouldn't miss his breaking Nell's things and getting a local man killed in stealing another tribe's artifact to sell. We know that in real life Fortune didn't murder Mead, who went on to divorce him, marry Bateson, give birth to a daughter, write many more books and become a sought-after speaker, but of the other claims we don't know whether there's any basis in truth.

(show spoiler)

I understand the value of subtlety in fiction, but such coyness feels out of place in a novel with an explicit and not entirely consensual sex scene on page 11. And it's especially disconcerting when Fen is based on a real person; the author should have owned her claims one way or the other, at least by explaining in her Author’s Note either their basis in the historical record, or that she invented them for storytelling purposes. Otherwise, it just looks like defaming the dead. I am also uncomfortable with her making Nell a victim in ways Margaret Mead was not. Is King pandering to the crowd inclined to find any successful female character “unlikeable” unless her vulnerability is constantly emphasized? It’s hard to imagine anyone disliking the big-hearted, enthusiastic Nell, though at least in the book she is not much for monogamy and again, we don’t know to what extent her personality was invented for the novel.


So, an enjoyable book, yes, but don’t take it for history. I liked it, but in addition to displaying the strong storytelling skills that King has in abundance, I do expect historical fiction authors to take responsibility for their deviations from the record, and am disappointed that that was not done here.