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 that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest purest euphoria —Nell
We meet Fen and Nell as they are hauled aboard a boat in New Guinea. They have abandoned the native community known as the Mumbanyo they’ve been living with and studying for five months and are heading back to the governor’s station to plan their next move. While there they reunite with a colleague, Andrew Blankson, another anthropologist and, in an effort to assuage his horrible loneliness, he finds a new tribe along the same river for them to study. Set in the 1930s this is the uncharted world of Euphoria by author Lily King.
Blankson leads them to a tribe completely different from the aggressive Mumbanyons. The Tam live on a large lake and it is the women who hunt and gather and the men who are the artisans. In this female centric society Nell flourishes in her study of their culture while Fen spends his time doing manly tasks such as building canoes and visiting the men’s house, where no women are allowed. Blankson returns to his village but visits the couple many months later and they fall into an easy camaraderie, sharing ideas and even going so far as to create what they call the Grid- an all-encompassing chart of as many cultures as they can quantify, based on temperament. It is only as Fen coerces a member of the Tam tribe to accompany him back to the Mumbanyo to recover a totem he believes will bring him great fame and recognition that events overcome what has been a harmonious time for them all.
King uses the life of Margaret Mead as the basis for this novel but it is her prose, her observations of Nell’s observations that make Euphoria such intense reading. In the same way an anthropologist will define and categorize what they observe so King clearly delineates her characters. Nell and Blankson assimilate to the Tam but Fen, in his refusal to adapt to any of the rituals beyond drinking and obeying only the most rudimentary manners, tries to force his role as the alpha male—with disastrous consequences.
Fen didn’t want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native.
Just as the anthropological work that yields the best results is done with as little interference of the culture as possible and over a longer period of time so King assembles Euphoria with an almost scientific care. Evidence on each character appears to alternately contradict and corroborate the readers’ thoughts and feelings as they read. And yet, while King observes, she also quietly moves beyond the professional and social aspects of the trio into their private hearts and minds, in all their darkness and tenderness. As the novel reaches its conclusion, it is this depth, this intimacy far beyond their professional goals that makes Euphoria ultimately heartbreaking.
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