As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them.
–Lily King - Euphoria - c.2014
On the verge of suicide anthropologist Andrew Bankson bumps into Nell and Fen. They too are anthropologists, and are just about to head back to Australia, Fen’s homeland, after an expedition. Nell and Fen are a husband and wife team, although Nell is the more famous of the two. Before they met she published a very well received book and she is where the money comes from.
They are two very different people from Bankson, but he feels that he has been so isolated from white people, if only they would stay close by, things would be so different for him. So he takes them on a tour of some “unexplored” parts of New Guinea near “his” tribe, and although they are hard to please eventually they encounter a people they would like to study.
But this is not really a book about tribal customs and anthropological investigations. It is much more of a book about three people and how their lives intertwine and mingle. About love and jealousy. About relationships and power imbalances. About an insecure man and the woman he breaks.
I first heard about Euphoria on Metafilter. They’ve recently added books to the fanfare section of the site, and one of the first groups to be set up was the Historical Fiction Book Club, and this was the first selection.
And it sounded fascinating, a fictionalised version of an event in the life Margaret Mead (Nell). I came across Mead years ago when I read Where we once belonged [ref]a book I really must reread, because even after all these years I can still remember it so clearly[/ref] by Sia Figiel. It tells the story of a young Samoan woman growing up, aware of Mead’s study on her people and how that has affected them, so I was curious to read more fiction about Mead, and after reading Euphoria and some of the articles linked to in the Fanfare discussion she sounds like a fascinating person and one I’d like to know more about.
But I began the book knowing nothing about Mead, apart from her name really, and I don’t think my reading of the book in any way suffered because of that. It probably made it easier to accept what was happening, rather than knowing any of the real details, because this is, after all, a fictionalised version. Many events are different, as are relationships and, of course, dialogue.
The book itself is beautifully told. You really get the sense of being in the humidity of New Guinea, especially as an outsider. Although I did find the switching of narrators a little off putting at first, until I grew accustomed to it and knew straight away who was narrating.
I was also a little disappointed that the book was told so much from a Western/white viewpoint. But as I read on I realised that the tribes and the anthropology and the jungle, they were all there to provide setting and isolation for these three people, they were only a minor part of the story. Which, to my mind, is problematical. The othering of brown people in order to tell a story about white people…
But apart from that I really enjoyed the book. It isn’t too long, but there is plenty to it. And I thought that Fen was a great [ref]not a good![/ref] character [ref] not man[/ref]. He was just so charming and then so insufferable the next second. Show Spoiler ▼
I thought that Bankson was a bit of a non-entity though. I suppose part of that was everything he had gone through in his life, attempting and failing to please so many people. But his character didn’t stand out the way the other two did, maybe that has to do with him being the narrator for the majority. The reader got to see the others through his eyes, but he never really looked at himself all that closely, although there were a fair few very telling moments.
All in all, I’m really glad I read this and I would recommend it to others, I hope I get around to reading a bit more about the read Margaret Mead soon.