After three fine works of fiction focused on contemporary families, Lily King broadens her horizons, geographically as well as emotionally, in a novel inspired by a real-life trio of anthropologists in New Guinea during a few fraught months in 1933.
She gives them different names, but it’s quite clear that Nell Stone is modeled on Margaret Mead; Fenwick Schuyler on Mead’s second husband, Reo Fortune; and Andrew Bankson on her third, Gregory Bateson. Initially sticking closely to the known facts, King imagines a dramatically different outcome for the trio’s charged interactions. It’s a bold move with mixed results.
An atmosphere of foreboding darkens “Euphoria” from its first page. As Nell and Fen leave a tribe called the Mumbanyo (the tribal names are all invented), someone throws something at their canoe: “‘Another dead baby,’ Fen said. He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.”
Dead babies don’t seem like great material for a joke, and we wonder exactly how Nell’s husband broke her glasses. We soon learn that the couple “had not agreed on one thing about the Mumbanyo.” Fen was enamored of their war-like ways; Nell was repulsed by their cruelty. They left the tribe seven months ahead of schedule.
“She calls the shots,” Fen bitterly tells Bankson. “We’re on her grant money.” Nell is famous, thanks to her controversial bestseller, “Children of the Kirakira” (i.e., Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa”), and her husband seethes with envy.
Nell and Fen are en route to Australia when Bankson persuades them to stay in New Guinea and observe another tribe near the Kiona people he is studying. He’s desperate for company and comfort, so lonely that he recently attempted to drown himself, only to be fished out by locals. He’s haunted by the memory of his older brothers’ deaths (one in the World War, one a suicide) and thinks his work with the Kiona is a failure.
Whereas Nell exults in the “euphoria” she feels in the field when “you’ve finally got a handle on the place,” Bankson expresses doubts that anthropologists can ever truly understand other cultures. Nell responds by declaring her faith in the scientific process, and we see in their intellectual engagement the first spark of an attraction that will shake her rocky marriage.
King sensitively traces the evolving dynamic of their three-cornered relationship. Nell has lost her respect for her husband as an anthropologist. “Fen didn’t want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native,” she muses.
Yet Nell’s work is driven by “the belief that somewhere on earth there was a better way to live, and that she would find it.” She’s looking for a society that honors strong women; he seeks affirmation that male aggression is the natural order. They both think their friendship with Bankson will help them find a better balance in their marriage.
This is all nicely rendered, as is King’s poignant portrait of Nell’s longing for a working partner who doesn’t feel threatened by her success. Also well drawn and increasingly alarming are the indications of Fen’s penchant for physical violence. What doesn’t ring true is the suggestion made by Nell that “we’re both a little in love with Andrew Bankson.” When a drunk Fen kisses Bankson on the mouth, it comes out of the blue and has no basis in any feelings either character has previously displayed. It’s a jarring anomaly in an otherwise impeccably plotted and motivated narrative.
Far more persuasive and evocative is a wonderful scene some weeks later showing the three anthropologists reading the manuscript of Helen Benjamin’s “Arc of Culture” (i.e., Ruth Benedict’s “Patterns of Culture”). Their excited reaction to this radical text, a battle cry for cultural relativism, vividly demonstrates the tangle of professional and personal drives that connect Nell, Fen and Bankson — and Helen, a former lover of Nell (as Benedict was of Mead).
It also cogently conveys the creative ferment of anthropology in its early decades: “Helen’s book made us feel we could rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.”
But old ways are remarkably tenacious, and Western anthropologists can be as arrogant as Western imperialists, we see in the series of events that propel the trio’s departure from New Guinea. The novel’s grim denouement is artistically justifiable (groundwork has been carefully laid throughout the text), but King’s fictional rewriting of history seems rather arbitrary in the end.
Finely crafted though it is, “Euphoria” feels more like a book the author felt she should write than a story she had to tell. Nonetheless, it shows a talented writer unwilling to settle for what she already does well and eager to give herself new challenges; her ambition is laudable, even if the result isn’t perfect.
Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and reviews books frequently for The Times and the Washington Post.
Atlantic Monthly Press: 257pp., $25