I was overseas last week and did a lot of reading without any posting, hence the flurry now that I’ve returned to my usual internet connection. Of the books I powered through, Euphoria was definitely the winner, but that’s a little bit like being the smartest horse.
Euphoria is the story of three anthropologists–Nel, Fen, and Bankston–in the 1930s, working with tribes along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. It is loosely based on the story of real-life anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead was a cultural anthropologist, she did study sex among cultures in the South Pacific, and she did meet a future husband while on an expedition with a current husband, so there was material to pull from. The ending will help explain why it’s more straight-up novel than historical fiction or biographical retelling.
The book is told from two perspectives. Primarily there is first-person narration from Bankston, a British anthropologist who has been on his own studying a semi-isolated tribe and worries about living up to the expectations set by his largely-deceased family. Though he enjoys his chosen field, he is desperate both for validation and for someone to work alongside. There are also field notes from Nel, an American cultural anthropologist who has already seen a very successful book published and is keen to understand her subjects on a level that surpasses language.
Also featured is her husband, Fen, an Australian anthropologist she met and quickly married, though to describe their relationship as “rocky” would be an understatement. He’s a volatile man, and grows ever more jealous at her success, which he views as almost at the expense of his own.
The book is focused on this trio of white outsiders, and there are some nice observations on how we read their work. There’s a great line uttered by one character about how when one person publishes an authoritative tome on an entire people, does it tell us more about those studied or the individual doing the studying? By in large, though, the tribes under the microscope are only seen through the lens of these three peering at them. The writing style is nice and I liked the flow of the story. It wasn’t too long, which books like this can tend to be. Read it if you’ve got the time, it’s certainly not the worst thing you can pick up.