Culture is so pervasive that it’s hard to see its influence unless you step outside of it. While Euphoria, by Lily King, is about anthropologists studying the tribes around the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, it is also a story about what happens when Westerners travel into the jungle and forget to behave. The irony would be delicious it if weren’t for the sheer tragedy of the story.
The novel opens in 1932 when Nell Stone and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, bumping into Andrew Bankson as they are packing up to return to Australia. Bankson is in bad shape when they meet him—so bad that I thought he was going to be the tragically deluded white man that usually features in these Heart of Darkness-like stories. Bankson has been studying the Kiona tribe on his own for months. He has grown suicidally lonely, so he convinces Nell and Fen to stay on in New Guinea by promising them a tribe of their own to work with just so that he can visit them.
It’s clear from their sniping that all is not well with Nell and Fen. Fen is angry with Nell because she wanted to pack up early. She didn’t like the tribe they had been working with because of their casual violence and apathy. But they had something, a special artifact, that Fen wanted. They had to leave without it. There’s also the matter of Nell’s infamous book. She’s got more cred as an anthropologist than he does; Fen is still trying to make his name in the field and it’s clearly eating at him. He’s petty, angry, and Nell feels she must keep appeasing him to keep their marriage and working relationship going.
Nell, Fen, and Bankson are (for the most part) so focused on their work unraveling the meanings behind the tribes’ ceremonies, practices, language, relationships, religion, and culture that they can’t see their own problems. Even though their work is going splendidly (aside from some troubling notions about cultural supremacy), it’s clear that all three are on a bad road. Fen refuses to give up his quest for the artifact, believing it will make his name. He also suspects that Nell and Bankson are falling in love. Things cannot end well.
At one point in the novel, Nell tells Bankson that Fen isn’t so much an anthropologist as a person who is more comfortably outside of Western culture. He fits right into tribal life like a chameleon. It’s little wonder that he feels that none of the rules (anyone’s rules) apply to him. Without those rules of conduct, Fen is a very dangerous man. All of the cultures depicted in this novel have practices and attitudes that another culture would see as problematic. Yet the message of Euphoria is that without these codes of behavior, none of us would be safe from people like Fen, who feel justified in taking and possessing anything they like.
Euphoria is a blisteringly fast read, but it’s so packed with rich detail and fascinating commentary on the early days of anthropology that I want to dive back in and read it again slowly. I’ve had this problem before with great plots. I just have to know what happens next, so I race through the book. I remember little things that snagged my attention along the way, but my drive to finish the book is so strong that I have to mentally flag those moments for later. This book was utterly amazing.