Book review – Euphoria by Lily King

A number of people have asked why I always write good reviews, never bad ones. The reason is simple – I only review books that I like. I stay silent on the rest. Nobody gets hurt.  When I am paid to review, then it is open season, but I review on these bookclubs to recommend, not to dissuade.

But then there are some books which sort of land in the middle. A qualified recommendation. Where I am ambivalent, uncommitted. Surely they deserve a mention. Euphoria is one of them. It has generated, well, euphoric raves from sources as diverse as the NYT, Oprah, National Book Critics Circle, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post – to name but a few. I didn’t really get it, but I can see why others may have.

The dominant and very clever conceit in the book is that all of the characters (actually only three – there are few others of any import) are all based on real people – anthropologist Margaret Mead (named Nell in the novel), her husband Reo Fortune (named Fen) and (one) of her lovers, Gregory Bateson (named Bankson). There were others lovers in Mead’s life, including the famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict who makes an occasional proxy appearance in the plot. The book is set (mainly) in tribal villages in the jungle in colonial New Guinea, in the 1930s.

My knowledge of anthropology is paper thin, what little I have was gleaned from eavesdropping on university conversations when I was a student. There is much anthropology in this book, and much that I learned. It inhabits the plot, loud and insistent and is sharply juxtaposed against the three white Western anthropologists and their interpersonal emotional entanglements as they struggle to learn and document the cultures of the tribes of New Guinea. Lily King goes to great lengths to imagine how Mead worked, she has clearly researched widely and manages to inject a great deal of the science into the narrative – the struggle understand why the tribes behave as they do, their approach to interrogation and understanding and scientific method, the constant struggle with Western conceptions of ‘primitive’, the fight against orthodoxies as Mead reveals sexual behaviours understood as shocking or deviant by many in the US – incest, tranvestism, polygamy, lesbianism.

The anthropologists are strongly drawn, especially Nell/Mead. The sense of place is palpable (the jungles Polynesia and its claustrophobic, dangerous and riotous palette). The storyline and plot is strong. The tribes and their ways are riveting. A fine and poignant ending is fashioned,

So why didn’t I love it like the rest of the literary world? I am not sure. It was not that the writing was a little pedestrian at times, it was not that the few named tribal characters were given little depth, it was not that the love story never touched me, I just didn’t look forward every day to sinking into the world that Lily King had determinedly and meticulously created. Just not really my cup of tea, I suppose. Taste is a fickle thing. I suspect I will be in the minority here, so consider this a quiet and irresolute recommendation. 

Book review – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

If I had to list my 10 best books of the last year or so, the following would emphatically be on it, probably near the front – Ben Fountain (Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk), Kevin Powers (Yellow Birds) and Philipp Meyer (The Son).

So having not read anything completely transformative in a while I wonder into my local bookstore to have an undirected browse. I pull out a book in the new fiction stack and guess who shouts breathlessly from the front cover? Fountain, Powers and Meyer . Not polite shouts either. Loud, roaring, hot, adamant shouts. Here is a thing, I think. I tend to filter shouts with a good dose of skepticism. But not from these authors. Not all three of them. Not at the same time. So I buy.

Fourth of July Creek is the debut novel by a young US novelist named Smith Henderson. I apologise in advance for what is to follow – a tsunami of superlatives (which is a little embarrassing – reviewers should have more decorum). Language, plot, characters, sense of place, ending, emotional entanglements, interior dialogues, story arcs, unusual and compelling viewpoints (including a recurring set of questions and answers from an unexplained and invisible character, perhaps even the author himself as he made notes to about the story and its characters). The whole lot just folds together like a great complex, beautiful origami, a near perfect combination of linguistic magic and combustive plot.

This book contains harsh stuff, even though gorgeously rendered. The story unfolds in the rural backwaters of Montana in the early 80s around an alcoholic, damaged and despairingly moral social worker named Pete, employed by the Department of Family Services. From amongst his daily horror lists of neglected and abused children, meth or religion-fucked mountain dwellers and trailer trash we follow a number of stories and subplots. A deranged end-of-days fundamentalist and his terrified little boy, forced to move from crevice to cave in freezing and inaccessible mountains while the father waits for the apocalypse, undone by paranoia and the re-living of a scene of a terrible family violence closely witnessed. A damaged and warped teenaged son of a unredeemable crack and meth addict thrown hopelessly into the juvenile detention system, leaving his tiny malnourished sister to the unprotected depredations of her mother and her friends. Pete’s own teenaged daughter, run away and untraceable, lurching unrestrained into big city prostitution, while Pete drinks himself into oblivion to dull the pain. Pete’s divorced wife, mangled into grief and uselessness under cheap religious homilies.

And unexpectedly, amidst the worst of people and circumstances, Henderson manages to rip open rents of courage and humanity and light, illuminating the dark everywhere else, holding this story aloft, keeping it from descending to the cliched places into which a lesser writer would stumble and fall.

This is an unflinching and deeply caring look a world without simple explanations and without neat endings, more hard than soft, more cruel than kind, but it raises itself up to a of a sort of hope, an strange upliftment for the reader even as he averts his eyes.

Make space in your TBR pile. Put this on top.