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Euphoria by Lily King: Sexy Anthropologists Writing Sexy Anthropology Books in 1930s New Guinea

Euphoria is, according to Lily King, "borrowed from the lives and experiences of [Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson]" but she "told a different story" about them.

fresh prince will smith hm


It's about three anthropologists in Dutch New Guinea in the 1930s: Nell, Fen, and Bankson. Nell and Fen are married but you sense there's STUFF there. On their way back from staying with a tribe, they run into Bankson, who is desperately lonely (and also the narrator for most of the book). The three form up into a tight group while Bankson falls in love with Nell, Fen does weird things on his own, and Nell really wants to interview just a few more natives, no for real this time, she'll stop soon. 

When, in the middle of reading the book, I realized it was heavily heavily heavily based on the life of Margaret Mead, I read a little about her. That little made me want to read more about her, so I'm indebted to Euphoria for that (thanks, book). But then it goes WAY OFF THE RAILS, which makes sense with the "told a different story" thing, but if you're going to keep things like your anthropologist protagonist lady marries a New Zealander and then has some intense chemistry with an Englishman in New Guinea whose brother shot himself under the statue of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus -- ALL OF WHICH HAPPENED TO MARGARET MEAD -- then maybe don't suddenly take a weird left turn at the end, y'know?

everything was making sense and now it doesn't


There are some damn great quotes in this book. It's more atmospheric than plotty, so you're hanging out with some anthropologists in New Guinea, feeling like maybe they could all get murdered at any time, because honestly, who just shows up in a small village and tells them you're now living there?

"Americans make such good anthropologists because they're so bloody rude."

King also knew that you can get AliceApproval with basically any sentence involving stars (#truth), and she has a section about the three anthropologists going down the river towards another village, and it's like reading an older travelogue when they knew you probably would never actually get to that place, because airplanes haven't become popularized enough yet, so they are going to describe it very clearly for you:

We passed through a long swath of fireflies, thousands of them flashing all around us, and it felt like soaring through stars.

tangled floating lanterns
DO YOU THINK IT LOOKED LIKE THIS

Questions I have for Lily King:

1. Why darkly hint about Nell's pregnancy from when they were living among the earlier natives? Dark hints that NEVER get explained. This happens on more than one occasion. Fen also rants about his mother and DARKLY HINTS at things, and I had no idea what the hell was happening. I texted Alley, because she'd already read and reviewed the book, but this is as far as we got:



2. So. What's up with that twist ending, hm? 

3. WHY IS THIS EXCELLENT:

I splashed around in the shallows and we looked at the stars and talked about death and named all the dead people we knew and tried to make a song out of all their names.

You know when you have a truly remarkable experience and you try to write it down, but you end up just listing things and it doesn't capture it at all? That's the above. So it sounds dry and whatever, but it's expressing the inadequacy of naming things without also talking about what you were feeling, something King touches on later in the book.

I like anthropology a LOT and I like thinking about cultures and why they are the way they are a LOT, so while this book was occasionally frustrating due to allusion rather than explanation, King remains an excellent writer who wrote a very good book with a very pretty rainbow gum tree as its cover image:

euphoria by lily king cover

"I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. Any maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world."

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