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Back to reality, girls and boys. And by way of easing back in, here's a book set in the steamy jungle of New Guinea, where snakes slither through the grass and gingham curtains flutter at the window. (Seriously.)
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By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014
“It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion – you’ve only been there eight weeks – and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”
That’s an anthropologist talking about living with a jungle tribe. But we recognize the feeling even if we’ve never been closer to New Guinea than the National Geographic channel. It applies to love affairs, new jobs, books you’re writing, a new group of friends . . . and so on and on.
Forthright, charismatic Nell Stone, the anthropologist who’s speaking, is the central figure of Lily King’s EUPHORIA. Inspired by events in the life of Margaret Mead after the 1928 publication of her groundbreaking COMING OF AGE IN SAMOA, this is a slim, thoughtful, honed-down book, a breathtaking read.
The narration alternates between first person and third, with the occasional dip into Nell’s field notebook. In the third person, we meet Nell and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick—called “Fen”—as they are canoeing away from a New Guinea tribal village that has exhausted and horrified them. The first two things we learn are that someone may have thrown a dead baby at them (the tribe does not hesitate to drown unwanted newborns) and that Fen has somehow broken Nell’s glasses.
Elsewhere on the river, in the more intimate first-person, we meet anthropologist Andrew Bankson as he’s trying unsuccessfully to drown himself. And we’re off.
EUPHORIA is a love story, tragic in its way, but it also is a fascinating essay on the pitfalls of anthropological fieldwork. And it’s about jealousy, of two or three types.
In the 1930s, anthropologists are divvying up interesting tribes the way archaeologists used to divide up Egyptian burial sites. Disappointed in their first New Guinea tribe, Nell and Fen are looking for a pleasanter one—with good art, we learn to our amusement. Bankson helps them find a nice one, and then—lonely, drawn to them as intriguing fellow scholars, and increasingly enamored of Nell—visits them on extended vacations from the village he’s studying.
As we watch Nell and Fen set themselves up—big new house, curtains at the windows, villagers employed as servants—we realize that their scholarship is compromised by their own points of view and the way their presence is changing the tribe daily. “Glimpses of how it really was before us are rare, if not impossible,” Nell admits.
But there are bigger problems. Because of her first, groundbreaking book, Nell keeps getting swamped with mail and lecture offers. The as-yet-unpublished Fen is increasingly rabid for fame of his own, desperation eating away at his scientific ethics. And, of course, Nell and Bankson—wonderful characters, clearly meant for each other—are falling in love.
In a book that’s otherwise as intricate and measured and lovely as a Bach fugue, Fen struck a discordant note for me, at least in the first reading. He’s so relentlessly the villain—nasty to Nell (how did those glasses break?), a mean drunk, waving a gun around at the slightest provocation, concocting a truly dastardly deed to make his name. The ending, in which he enacts everything we could possibly have feared, seemed rushed and at the same time way too neat.
The last of the tragedy unfolds at a distance, and we find out about it well after the fact. That’s an interesting choice for King, and muted the impact for me. But a second reading may convince me that the distance is necessary, as is Fen’s eternal drumbeat.
I’m looking forward to that second reading. Despite my quibbles, this is among my top ten books of 2014, maybe the top five. Highly recommended for a totally immersive read.
Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday, recommended to my beloved by Blue Hill Books. Nobody cares whether I review it. And you know me, FCC—I'm just out for a good time.