“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has,” said Margaret Meade, the great anthropologist.
Meade would be pleased with the novel, Euphoria, which charts the course of a small group of committed anthropologists who survey tribes and cultures in New Guinea beginning in the 1930s. In fact, author Lily King concedes that although her book is pure fiction, she took inspiration from the lives of Meade and two other well-known anthropologists whose travels closely resemble those of the main characters in her recent novel.
To read Euphoria is to be thrust into Anthropology 101—without having taken the foundation class. The main character, Nell Stone, an American cultural anthropologist, is loyal to ancient tribes in mosquito-ridden places where she documents, in excruciating detail, the lives and customs of nomadic peoples of whom we learn through Nell’s vivid diaries and dreams. “She dreamed of dead babies, she wrote in her dark cloth book. Babies on fire. Babies caught in webs of trees. Babies covered in ants.”
Nell is married to “Fen,” an Australian anthropologist equally committed to exploring native populations. As the novel opens, they are leaving months of surveying the “Mumbanyo” people of New Guinea when they meet up with an intellectual competitor, Andrew Bankson, a British anthropologist who has been working along the Sepik River in New Guinea described as “the Amazon of the South Pacific.” What follows is a love triangle alongside the trio’s cultural journey through old civilizations and traditions.
For those interested in anthropology or culture, the book is a goldmine. But it can be tedious work to endure the travels of Nell, Fen, and Bankson through jungles, fevers, insects, rashes, and odd behavior by the natives they encounter.
The novel does a good job revealing the foibles of human beings—even those studying human beings. “The tribe is always greener on the other side of the river,” Nell tells her colleagues. “But it was impossible not to be envious of other people’s people.”
If Lily King is trying to get the reader to respect and like anthropologists, she succeeds with the former but fails with the latter, with the possible exception of Nell. Fen and Bankson come across as star-crossed lovers engaged in a self-admiration club. “Fen didn’t want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity. It was not ontological. It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public.”
Euphoria is a word clearly chosen by an author in great admiration of anthropology. For the ordinary reader, looking for a good yarn, it might be more aptly named Energy or Enthusiasm—something slightly less dramatic. Then again, if euphoria is a drug-induced state, this culturally curious breed of observers seems to thrive on fact and fantasy as they chronicle the lives of peoples in far flung corners of the globe.
In the end, one is left admiring of this club of anthropologists who make no apologies for their fierce devotion to things most of us will never see nor might want to see. That is the kind of commitment Margaret Meade seems to have had in mind.