Lily King’s Euphoria is a compulsive and unsettling reimagining of a period of Margaret Mead’s life. English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field too long, fighting his peers and colleagues over the last vestiges of their field, all desperate to find new societies to examine. He is studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea, haunted by the deaths of his brothers, and increasingly frustrated and isolated. And then a chance encounter brings him in contact with the controversial Nell Stone – the Margaret Mead figure – and her husband Fen, hunting for the next discovery. His life and career take a wild turn with these colleagues; a poisoned chalice of a saving grace.
Nell and Fen have just escaped the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo tribe and instead of heading for Australia to follow a rumour of an as-yet unstudied Indigenous tribe and despite Nell’s increasingly bad health, when Andrew in his desperation to have colleagues near find them a new tribe, the couple head back up river. Intellectually enthralled and deeply lonely, Andrew soon leaves his own tribe with his work incomplete, and follows.
Both famous from publishing books but Nell more so, the way she and Fen approach the artistic, female-dominated Tam tribe is indicative of the already existing fault lines in their relationship. Andrew’s presence, studying them as much as the Tam tribe, amplifies the differences – Nell reaching for Andrew intellectually, Fen reaching for Andrew on some sort of man-to-man level; growing resentment and tension over who feels what for whom; who treats the tribe in what way; how they work and what they miss.
It is a lushly-written, taut novel. There is beauty and suffering and a rising firestorm that is so well managed. This is a romance, sure, but this is such an intelligent tale, reflecting and respecting the characters themselves. It is that time in the 20th Century between the two World Wars, in field that can revolutionise the world but may be coming toward the end of its power. The western study of the Orient, the fascination with exoticism often belittling the subject of study to mere fauna: it is bewitching but dated.
It is also a surprising book because there is unexpected detail and care written in by King. This kind of story – a thrilling reimagining of famous woman and the meeting of two of her husbands – could easily rely on the melodrama of what’s occurring on a human level. But instead we see the tensions in intimate relationships manifesting in how the anthropologists understand the tribe they are living in; interpretations of the society used as another piece of evidence for their side of the fight with another.
The competition of egos and desires, overlaid with the battle between subjectivity and objectivity of their academic pursuit created for me an unexpected, compulsive read. This reimagining of Mead’s life is humanising, showing the life of a dedicated ethnographer and the reality of life in the field.