Lily King is a truly talented writer. Her settings are lush, but her descriptions are brief, succinct. “Euphoria” is full of beauty, passion, discovery, and danger, and these things feel very real, but there is no self-indulgent, flowery prose.
The author is matter of fact and unsentimental, but this does not come off as cold or distant. She’s just keeping it simple, as though showing us people, places, and events through a camera lens, letting everything speak for itself.
Ms. King tells the story of three anthropologists, ethnographers really, studying primitive cultures in New Guinea in the 1930s. They are each brilliant in their own ways, with individual weaknesses and biases, but together they form a perfect but fragile triad.
The three combined are a synergistic force of intellect, skill and wisdom that leads them to incredible discoveries and groundbreaking theories. Their personal dynamics are tumultuous, however, and threaten their research.
The story is is a fictionalized account of certain events in the life of Margaret Mead, but I did not read it as anything but an invention of the author’s imagination. It was easy to take it on its own merits.
The character representing Mead (and that’s the last time I’ll mention the real-life inspiration of the book) is very intelligent anthropologist named Nell Stone, who is married to a man in the same field of study, Schuyler Fenwick, called Fen.
The two of them are conducting their research together, but Nell has published a book recently, and Fen has no such trophy in his own career. His jealousy is like a third person in their marriage, and he expresses it with venomous verbal abuse and occasional physical outbursts.
When we are first introduced to Nell, she seems shellshocked and severely withdrawn in the wake of terrible things she has seen in the most recent cultural group they lived amongst. She is also clearly feeling the effects of Fen’s constant belittling. He contradicts her, insinuates she is a know-it-all, and bullies her.
The first time we see them together, his initiation of sexual intimacy is hardly less than marital rape, with no consideration at all for her illness and infected wounds all over her body. It’s a difficult scene to read.
When Nell and Fen meet up with a third anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, sparks fly and each character’s true personality begins to unfold on the page. The relationship between the three is ambiguous and fascinating.
They all have traits and histories that clue the reader in to the fact that none of them quite fits into Western society as it was then, and perhaps even as it is now. They might each be considered deviant, in different ways and to different degrees, by some ways of thinking.
Perhaps it is the study of so many varied cultures with non-Western social constructs, such as transvestism, multiple types of gender identification and expression, and differing balances of power between men and women that give these anthropologists a more than typically fluid sense of sexuality and relationships.
Or, perhaps it is that very openness that leads them to, interests them in, and allows them to enjoy the study of other cultures and their norms.
There is a passage from Nell’s journals that seems to support the latter theory:
I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.
I think it is probably a combination of both.
There are several passages in this book that are worthy of quotation. King’s prose is sparse at times, and very much to the point, but vivid and arresting. It was a thrilling adventure of a book, and an absolute pleasure to read, despite the rough patches.
I wanted it to end differently than it did, however. I had gotten used to the author overturning my expectations of storyline, not in a gothic shock-value way, but with finesse and discernment. I still felt a little thrown by the conclusion of events.
Without wishing to reveal anything further, I’ll simply say that I cannot truly call this a happy book after all was said and done. It was raw at times, yes; but ultimately, it was excellent.