Euphoria by Lily King

Anthropology is an unusual subject matter for a book.

Although fictional, Euphoria is based on the true interaction between three anthropologists in New Guinea in the 1930’s, the most prominent of them being Margaret Meade who wrote several eye-opening and famous books about her experiences studying the lives of ‘primitive’ tribes. The three fictional anthropologists in this story are Nell Stone (Margaret Meade), her controlling abusive husband Fen, jealous of her success, and Andrew Bankson who becomes fascinated by this magnetic couple.

Euphoria has a complex construction, some of it a third-person unflinching retrospection from an older Bankson reflecting on his heady days of pioneering collaboration with Nell and Fen. Some of it is also Bankon’s first-person feelings at the time centring on his intense despair and then his growing love for Nell. We also get Nell’s viewpoint and thoughts from some found notes given to him after her death by one of her female lovers. The book can be tough going at times because of this multi-stranded construction.

But it is saved by the lyrical language which conjures up the heat, the insects, the tribes, their customs and jungle setting. There are some wonderfully sensual passages about the moon and the smells of the ground once the rains come.

There is also much to think about in the book. The ethics and even the feasibility of studying these native tribes is a thorny issue, as is the differing approaches of the three characters, Nell intuitive and imaginatively emotional, Fen through living experiences and Bankson trying to look at it as scientifically as possible.

wp_20160913_002 Other absorbing reflections raised by the book concern the patriarchal and matriarchal tribes, the symbolism of dead babies, the irony of thinking western culture was superior to others and the misguided belief you could study these ‘primitive’ cultures without interfering.

An intriguingly different book where the excitement, the ‘euphoria’ of these pioneers into anthropology is intensely conveyed by the author.

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