Thanks to the beneficent offices of my husband, who kept our small son occupied for several hours, I devoured Lily King’s gorgeous novel Euphoria* in one sitting,
Ms. King has taken some of the elements of Margaret Mead‘s biography and transformed them into a lushly atmospheric novel that is keenly evocative of time and place. Euphoria asks, How can we study and attempt to understand another culture, when we do not even know ourselves?
Anthropologist Andrew Bankson is despondent and suicidal when he runs across Nell Stone, a famous American anthropologist (modeled on Mead) and her volatile Australian husband Fen at a Christmas party in New Guinea. Both are ill and unhappy with their work researching a tribe prone to infanticide; Bankson convinces them to study a different tribe, the Tam, whose territory is just a few miles from where he works.
Grief-stricken over the untimely deaths of his brothers and hounded by his high-strung mother, Bankson falls for Nell immediately. He’s entranced by her quick mind, her openness, her unusual but effective methods for collecting data. In his loneliness, he also falls for the idea of Nell and Fen, for their very geographical closeness.
Bankson is the novel’s narrator, a world-weary voice reconstructing the past. He reminded me of Charles Ryder, the narrator of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; his sorrowful, sometimes wry tone and sharp eye for detail is perfect for a reminiscence in which we know things will end badly.
And end badly they do, but along the way Ms. King brings us a beautifully sensitive portrayal of not only Fen, Nell, and Bankson and the kind of anthropology they practice, but also the Tam and their particular part of New Guinea. The impulse to learn, to record, to understand may be noble, but it can have disastrous consequences.
I highly recommend Euphoria; definitely rush to pick it up if you loved Brideshead Revisited or Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees or stunningly beautiful book covers.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.