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. 

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