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Euphoria by Lily King

Published on Monday, December 7, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Anthropology and Love

This is a work of fiction, drawn very loosely from the experience of three anthropologists, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Reo Fortune, who worked together for a few months in New Guinea in the early 1930s. 

In this story, the female anthropologist, Nell Stone, is the star of the group, having already published a successful book, has become respected in academic circles, and is earning money.  She is naturally curious and respectful of the native people that she studies.  Nell’s husband Fen, is aggressive, fearless, selfish, and despite his own brilliance at certain aspects of the anthropological field work, is jealous of Nell’s success.  The third main character and the main narrator, is Andrew Bankson, a British anthropologist who is tormented by the deaths of his brothers, and hasn’t reconciled himself to the fact that he didn’t live up to his father’s  expectation that his son to follow in his footsteps as a biologist, and who has a disapproving, tyrannical mother.

The three anthropologists have very different approaches to their work.  Nell likes to spend many months with a particular tribe, getting to know about how they govern themselves, their economy, food, gender roles, child rearing, and sexual habits.  Whenever she makes a breakthrough in understanding her subjects, Nell feels euphoric (hence the title).  Fen is more interested in tribal men - rivalry, ritual, and language.   He experiences his subjects in the most hands-on and self-indulgent way.  Bankson, on the other hand, is agile-minded, respectful, and a careful worker, but he is miserably unhappy.  Nell is an inspiration to him and he begins working with more enthusiasm.  A love triangle quickly evolves with consequences to their friendships, their careers, and their lives. 

This book raises questions about Western ideas about so-called primitive societies, the morality of colonial-type exploitation, and gender roles.   It was an interesting and enjoyable read and provides much to discuss for book groups.

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