Sunday, February 1, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Three young anthropologists are studying tribes in 1930s New Guinea in Euphoria, a brilliant novel inspired by the life of Margaret Mead.

Nell and Fen have been incompatibly married for two years, working together in the field but with radically different approaches. Fen's jealousy over Nell's literary success and her ongoing correspondence with her female ex, Helen, simmers beneath the surface of their relationship.

Bankson, meanwhile, battles despair after a lonely period amidst the Kiona people.

   "Three days earlier, I'd gone to the river to drown myself.
That beautiful image on the cover of
Euphoria is the bark of a
Eucalyptus deglupta. Photo above taken
at Wahiawa Botanic Garden in Oahu.
    They dragged me to shore, flipped me over, pounded me like a sago pancake, and pulled me back up to standing, all the while lecturing me in their language. They found the stones in my pocket. They grabbed them, the two men, their bodies nearly dry already for they wore nothing but rope around their waists while I sagged with the weight of all my clothes. They made a pile of the stones from my pockets on the beach and shifted language to a Kiona worse than mine, explaining that they knew I was Teket's man from Nengai. The stones are beautiful, they said, but dangerous. You can collect them, but leave them on land before you swim. And do not swim in clothes. This is also dangerous. And do not swim alone. Being alone you will only come to harm. They asked me if I knew the way back. They were stern and curt. Grown-ups who didn't have patience for an oversized child."

A few days after this incident, Nell, Fen and Bankson meet at a colonial government Christmas party. A spark is kindled between Nell and Bankson. Would it have been better if Bankson had remained alone?

A quote from Mead is used as an epigraph: "Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world."

I felt like I was right in the middle of it all, with the bugs in the tropical heat, mesmerized by the drama unfolding like a train wreck. Short chapters in three shifting perspectives create an engaging sense of discovery. Euphoria is heartbreaking and surprising in equal measure. I loved it.

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