In Lily King’s novel, Euphoria, anthropologist Nell Stone and her new husband Fen are studying the Tam people in the Territory of New Guinea. Nell has recovered from a bout of malaria, and is in her self-described “euphoria” phase of working with a new tribe – the thrill of discovery still fresh but with relationships established enough to start forming some working hypotheses.
by Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014
260 pages (hardcover)
Source: personal library
In some ways, she finds the Tam similar to the neighboring Sepik River people groups about which she has published – to some sensation – back home in America. But there’s something different about the Tam, an undercurrent of sexual dynamics that leads Nell to suspect that, despite appearances, the Tam are a female-dominated society.
Fen, purporting to be her partner in the research, finds this notion ridiculous, dismissing her methods even as he betrays his jealousy at the success of her latest book. He disappears for days with the men, plotting hunting expeditions and coming home for sex and a shave, while Nell throws herself into her work. The balance of power in their relationship becomes even more tenuous as they’re entangled with another anthropologist, Bankson, who turns out to be working nearby.
Nell confides to her secret journal that her marriage, her work, her longing for a child, even the sympathetic Bankson are “pulls on me that cancel one another out like an algebraic equation I can’t solve.” The trio are soon drawn into a triangle of work, ego, and desire. Nell works herself to exhaustion, Fen grows dangerously obsessive, and Bankson becomes protective, as the euphoria carries them forward in a “glacial” movement that “gathers up all the debris as it rolls through.”
Inspired by events in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, the novel illuminates the anthropological methods and debates of the 1930s. Like Mischa Berlinski’s 2007 Fieldwork, which explores the entanglements of anthropologists in Thailand, Euphoria has the authenticity of a biography with the narrative intensity of a struck match. Quick-paced and rich with memorable characters, King’s storytelling is thick with the heat of cooking fires and the droning of insects and the crossed passions of people who have everything to lose. It’s a story about seizing life and a reminder of the potentially high cost of power and the lasting effects of our choices.