Lily King’s prize-winning novel, “Euphoria,” is an intoxicating read that stayed with me long after I finished it. The gifted writer takes us to a time and place we might know only from National Geographic magazines—Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. King reports that she’d known little about anthropology before reading about a drama-filled episode in the life of Margaret Mead. While working on that island in 1933, Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune, met by chance fellow anthropologist Gregory Bateson, and then began a collaboration with him. Shortly thereafter, Bateson became Mead’s third husband.
King said in an interview, “With the heat, mosquitos and malarial fevers, it was just a wild mess.” King creates a fictionalized account of that story that is atmospheric, enlightening and steamy in every sense of the word.
King’s version of Mead is American anthropologist Nell Stone, who is in New Guinea studying a local tribe with her husband and coworker, Fen. The two have just left their work with a difficult, combative tribe and moved downriver to study a more compliant group. The couple encounters Bankson, a fellow anthropologist Fen casually knew. Bankson had been living for 25 months alone in a hut studying a nearby tribe, and was depressed to the point of attempting suicide. Meeting the couple, he feels revived and yearns to be part of their lives and work.
Bankson is the narrator of the events that follow that meeting and the drama that arises around the threesome. Describing Nell in a letter to his mother, he says, “She’s American, quite well-known but a sickly, pocket-sized creature.” What he does not mention is that this fragile, injured but glowing woman consumes his thoughts from the minute he sets eyes on her. A love triangle forms quickly, with personal ambitions, professional jealousies and sexual histories juicing it up.
King weaves her vast knowledge of the work done by these anthropologists in and
around the story of their relationship. I admit to having known little about the day-to-day life of a working anthropologist, but through the delightful diary entries of Nell that King scatters throughout, we hear about such challenges as interviewing people using only gestures, learning languages with 16 genders, routinely brushing scorpions off your leg and sneaking into secret ceremonies. From now on, whenever I hear the name Margaret Mead, I will visualize her seated cross-legged on a dirt floor, in a stifling, moist room with at least one baby in her arms and young children crawling in delight all over her.
When Bankson asks Nell, soon after meeting her, what is her favorite part of the work they do, she answers, “The moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” When she turns the question back to him, he says, “A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.” The euphoric moments and the grimly-detailed realities are my favorite things in this fascinating book.