Thursday, July 3, 2014

Anthropologists' behavior examined: Lily King's Euphoria

In online photos, the cover of the Lily King's Euphoria is fairly innocuous and unexciting.  But in person, it has a definite "wow factor"! 

The cover is actually a close up of a Rainbow Gum tree.

(for more photos/info click here.

I will admit, I took way too long to pick this book up, but once I started reading, I was immediately taken in by the story of Nell Stone and her fellow anthropologists and lovers. One is her husband and one is not, and the trio is found initially deep in the jungles of New Guinea.

Nell Stone is (very) loosely based on world renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead.  Many aspects of the story are nearly exactly like Mead's own life, including her recently published book (the title is different, but the subject of the book is nearly identical to the actual book Mead published), as well as her relationships.  Names are changed, but even those remain similar.  But take note: this is not a biography of her life, and that does becomes clear at the end of the novel.  This is a work of fiction.

At the time, between the two world wars, anthropology was still finding its footing, and was not necessarily regarded as actual science, or even as necessary.  Even the anthropologists themselves had very different and often extreme manners of going about their studies.   And truly, it was a science of observation.  This book brings up a lot of points regarding how anthropology works, and how does one observe without becoming part of the observation, or changing it with your presence.  All three of these anthropologists handle this differently.  They also regard their subjects differently, and part of that is due to their individual temperaments.

King touches on many different aspects of the difficulties faced by these explorers.  Their interactions with the native tribes they study is often dangerous;  physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Nell has lost a baby with their last tribe, and while details are not given but only alluded to, she's experienced some rather traumatic scenes with that tribe.  She and her husband Fen are looking for a new tribe to study, or else they will leave New guinea and seek refuge in Australia.  They meet up with another busy anthropologist, Bankson, a Brit, and he leads them to their next refuge.  But even in these deeply embedded jungle villages, the western "civilized" world finds its way in, as do the problems and affairs of the three outsiders.

This was a well written novel, with fairly well rounded characters.  I understood King's reasons for leaving out some of the key information about certain events that happen prior to meeting Stone and her husband, but a part of me felt like some of it was too ambiguous.  A little  more information might have helped me to understand Nell better.  I think Bankson's character gets to reveal the most about himself, and I loved that.

Definitely a good read, and one to pick up.  I'm giving it 4 stars, only because I wish it wasn't quite so restrained.

4 stars

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