Loosely based on the life of the iconic anthropologist, Margaret Mead, Euphoria is an enticing combination of romance, adventure, and the study of native tribes in New Guinea although, admittedly, the tribes are mostly fictional renderings of the actual tribes studied by Mead in the 1930s. In the “Acknowledgements” at the end of the book, King says:
While this is a work of fiction, it was initially inspired by a moment described in Jane Howard’s 1984 biography Margaret Mead: A Life and my subsequent reading of anything I could locate about anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune [Mead’s second husband], and Gregory Bateson [Mead’s third husband], and their few months together in 1933 on the Sepik River of what was then called the Territory of New Guinea.
King has changed the names to protect the possibly not-so-innocent as she has imagined what might have taken place during the short time the three of them collaborated. It is the story of both a love triangle and professional jealousy as these three characters (re-named Nell, Fen, and Bankson) come together to research a fictional tribe known as the Tams.
The interpersonal relationships form the tension within the trio – Fen’s domineering control of Nell, Nell’s professional exactitude regarding her research, of which Fen is jealous, and Bankson’s loneliness and growing love for Nell. The majority of the story is told from Bankson’s point of view with occasional additions from Nell’s letters and journals.
If this was merely the story of a love triangle, it would not have received the acclaim it has enjoyed – New York Times “One of the 10 Best Books of the Year,” The Kirkus Prize Winner, and Top 10 Books of the Year by New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and Vogue to name just a few. It is a book that grabs you early, gives you not only the personal and interpersonal lives of its characters, but also an intriguing look at the interplay between early anthropology and the native tribes that were studied.
The opening paragraph sets the mood for both the “otherness” of the native people, as seen by the western scientists, and the difficulties that exist between Fen and Nell:
As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.
‘Another dead baby,’ Fen said.
He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.
King moves this story along at a breakneck pace, keeping the three anthropologists in a constant state of tension. The interplay with the Tam people provides an opportunity to examine the different personalities and ethics of each of the threesome through the manner with which each interacts with the tribe members.
By turns fascinating and disturbing, I would recommend it without reservation.