From New Zealand to New Guinea: Euphoria

EuphoriaThe same day I finished The Luminaries I picked up Euphoria by Lily King. In just the first chapter I was struck by how intensely dissimilar the two novels are: The Luminaries being all about plot, puzzles, and tricky literary conceits. Euphoria, on the other hand, is textural, lyric, and utterly transports you into a different place, time, and perspective. The opening pages slammed me so fast and hard into the hot, humid, stinking, feverish head of the main character Nell that I quickly realized even more how little The Luminaries was a character driven novel.

Euphoria is set in New Guinea in the 1930s in the company of three anthropologists studying local tribes along the Sepik river. One of the anthropologists, Bankson, is a desperately lonely man, frustrated by his work and isolation to the point of considering suicide. It’s at this crisis point that he encounters and befriends the married anthropologist couple, Nell and Fen, who are a bit rough after a few months studying a tribe so brutal and alienating (lots of infanticide) that they abandon their work and plan to go to Australia instead. Bankson convinces them to stay by helping them find a different tribe to study near his own and so the story unfolds. The characters are based upon the real life Margaret Mead and her two of her husbands (she had a few) in the infancy of anthropology when all such scholars were hunting for the perfect field-study tribe, one that would provide such ethnographic riches as to forever canonize their “discoverers”  in the annals of Western social science.

The dynamism in the story comes not only from the intellectual tension between them all as scientists, but also in their interpersonal pairings with Nell at the center. Nell and Fen have an abusive relationship, and Nell and Bankson have one of mutual fascination heavily laced with sexual tension. Their attraction is taboo from a Western viewpoint (and from many other cultural viewpoints), but much about their work as deconstructors of social norms and boundaries seems to push their own behavior to the edge and beyond of what is/is not culturally acceptable from a Western viewpoint. Rules fall away; life gets a little raw; they go native; they struggle for objectivity.

Many years ago I read the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind. Not surprisingly, that book evoked all sorts of smells — good, bad, and otherwise. Euphoria similarly engaged my senses as I read — from smells like the powerful sour tang of unwashed bodies to other senses like touching softly worn, humid paper, or feeling the tight pull of a scabbed-over wound, or hearing the scratching of insects and rodents in dry leaves. Sweat, fevers, delirium, the creased, greasy feel of dirty clothing. The word “visceral” constantly came to mind to describe King’s description.

I inhaled this book in two sittings. One of the best of the year so far.

4/5
library copy
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014

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