Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King
Picador, 2014 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)
In the deepest part of the rainforest, a lone anthropologist named Andrew Bankson decides that he can no longer go on living, and wades into the Kiona River with his pockets full of rocks. Moments before he drowns, he is pulled from the river by a native man, who laughs and tells him he had better be careful and clear the rocks out of his pockets before he goes swimming, lest he should accidentally drown. Thus Bankson is prevented from killing himself, and not long after, he is informed of the arrival of two more European anthropologists. Desperately lonely, he goes to meet them, and everything changes.
Partly inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is a book which uses anthropologists as characters in order not to study a foreign culture, but to study our own. The book takes place in the 1930s, and in the shadow of the second world war, which seems imminent. Nell is therefore rather unusual for her time, because as a woman scientist she has been extremely successful, whereas her Australian husband Fen has only published one short paper about a tribe he's studied for several years. The book's point of view fluctuates between Andrew's first person narration, a third person narration that focuses on Nell, and a few short sections supposedly from Nell's diary-- at first, I found this perspective jarring, particularly because the first chapter sets the book up to be about Nell and Fen, and told in third person, but chapter two is Andrew before he meets them, so even if he is the third person narrator in the other sections, he couldn't possibly have known about their life with the Mumbanyo tribe before he met them, or their sex life on the boat coming down the river. Yet somehow, it works. Nell is both the subject and the protagonist, so it's important that we see her in a number of ways, and hear from her. As a woman, she is privy to certain things in the tribe at Lake Tam that the men cannot be; she ascertains that the society worships its women and she longs for proof of this, devoting herself to work while Fen appears to be doing not much at all. She speaks to Andrew of a Euphoria that sets in around the two month mark of living with any tribe, the point at which a person feels totally at home and accepted into the way of life in the tribe, and before they realise how much they have to learn. This period of Euphoria could also be described as the 'honeymoon period' of a new relationship, and it is this kind of relationship that develops between Nell and Andrew right under Fen's nose.
Fen is an interesting character, because he fluctuates between being broody and possessive, and sweet to his wife. He has the same interests as her, ostensibly, but not the same drive, and it becomes apparent almost right away that he wants for his wife not to be the more successful one in their relationship. He constantly reminds her that he is her superior, whereas Andrew treats her like an equal. He seems uncouth and culturally insensitive, and his quest for a magical flute which the natives worship and feed seems almost like some sort of flimsy phallic metaphor, although I assume that this item is based on research. He wants this item as some sort of trophy, and looks for signs of it with a destructive single mindedness. This material thing is far more important to Fen than the research he is supposed to be doing. Fen and Bankson have a shared history, as they both studied together in Australia, and their friendship seems to constitute some sort of rivalry that goes back to Bankson being given Fen's mentor's butterfly net like some sort of prize, an event Bankson does not even remember. As time goes on, the behaviour of these two men becomes increasingly territorial, particularly when it comes to demonstrating who has more right to Nell.
Andrew Bankson as the point of view character is the most well developed of the cast. We learn early on that he has a tragic past and a fraught relationship with his mother, and I think what this does is soften him for the reader, and make him seem sympathetic. Therefore, we don't hate him for falling in love with another man's wife, we see the mere fact of her already being married as a cruel trick of fate. We know very little about Fen but this doesn't seem to matter, as Nell and Andrew seem perfect for one another-- they share the same passion for research and each have a tragic past, and are now isolated and lonely in their present. This gradual coming together of characters is gentle and beautifully done, and at it's most basic level, the struggles of the three characters within their love triangle is a great study of human behaviours.
I really enjoyed this book, and I gave it five stars.
Find more information at Lily King's website here.