photo: Emilia, creative commons license

By Lily King – Based on events in the life of noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is the story of the warping of personality and relationships that occurs when a person is immersed in an alien culture. What survives, what does not.

In the 1930s, British anthropologist Andrew Bankson has lived a little too long, a little too isolated in a remote region of the Territory of New Guinea, studying the Kiona culture. A chance meeting with a married couple—fellow anthropologists Schuyler Fenwick, an Australian, and his successfully published wife, American Nell Stone—is an overpowering dose of the familiar, of kinship. It’s a lifeline for him. “I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter,” he writes from a later period, after a successful career.

Bankson is so grateful to talk to these other scientists, to speak English, to gossip, to have common reference points, he giddily persuades them to take on the study of a tribe father along the Sepik River that will place them at least within a few hours’ journey of the Kiona settlement. Physically and emotionally damaged from a few months with the ultra-violent Mumbanyo tribe, the couple also needs a change.

In Nell, Bankson finds a colleague with whom he can discuss, probe, and explore theories about the Kiona and even the entire purpose of anthropological research. Fen isn’t interested. He’s living off Nell’s grant money, not researching in any real sense, not documenting, not writing. He’s occupied in being jealous of his wife, perfecting his skills at self-justification, and letting his moral rudder erode.

Bankson learns much from Nell. His reminiscences about those heady days are interspersed with excerpts from her journal of the same time. Together, these sources create “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace—a love triangle in extremis,” said reviewer Emily Eakin in the New York Times.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is King’s descriptions of Nell’s methods—the kinds of questions she asks, the ways she elicits information, her nonjudgmental attitude, her respect. (Would she had been more judgmental about her husband.) The title refers to what she calls the deceptive moment of clarity “When you think you finally have a handle on the place. . . the briefest, purest euphoria.”

At one point, Nell writes in her journal: “You don’t realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense. You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can’t understand the words . . .words aren’t always the most reliable thing.” Yet, in advancing within their scientific community, words are exactly what they depend on. What words to choose and how to arrange them appears to be a Stone/Fenwick/Bankson breakthrough.

King does a terrific job evoking a sense of place, a thin fog of menace, and the cultures in which the scientists immerse themselves. When it was published in 2014, the book won the Kirkus Prize and the New England Book Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named a “best book of the year” by nearly 20 news outlets.

In real life, by the time Mead reached New Guinea, she was married to New Zealand anthropologist Reo Fortune and had published her popular and influential Coming of Age in Samoa. New Guinea research colleague Gregory Bateson became Mead’s third husband, and many of the details of the fictional Bankson’s life—his education, the deaths of his two brothers—mirror Gregory’s, but the plot of this book takes a quite different turn. It’s as if the author, musing on the three scientists stranded in the jungle, said to herself, “What if . . .?”