Author: Lily King
Review: Shelby R. Grubbs, executive director, Atlanta Center for International Arbitration and Mediation
Passions — both for knowledge and fame and of the amorous variety — animate this short gem of a book.
Inspired by an episode from the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is set in a remote area of New Guinea. There, we meet Nell, an American anthropologist who cares little for the fame generated by her earlier work and scholarship. Along with her unsatisfactory husband, a resentful and overbearing Australian anthropologist called Fen, she lives with (and lives to study) the Tam, a fictitious indigenous tribe.
Nell is busy documenting the Tam culture, one in which women farm and fish, while men are potters and artists much devoted to decorating their bodies and gossiping. Her productivity contrasts with Fen’s indolence. He is lazy and envious and withholds information which could assist their work together. Like Tam husbands, he lives off his wife’s labor, but unlike the Tam, he is disrespectful, venal and crass.
Whereas Nell cares for her Tam neighbors, Fen is eager to steal an artifact from a nearby community which will, he hopes, make him wealthy and make his name as a scientist. Their marriage becomes even more difficult when Bankston, an English anthropologist who lives with and studies another local tribe falls for Nell. The triangle thus created result not only heat – in the form of jealously – but also intellectual and philosophical light.
New Guinea proves to be a rich setting for an expanded understanding not only of the “primitive” Tam, but also of the taboos and tics of Western culture. As Mead herself put it, “knowledge of another culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.”
Euphoria was listed by the New York Times as one of 2014’s best books.
Read Mr. Grubbs’ review from last year: Books 2014: Rowing for Gold in Berlin, Inspiring a Generation