EUPHORIA, by Lily King. Atlantic Monthly Press, 261 pp., $25.
This novel is as concentrated as orchid food, packing as much narrative power and intellectual energy into its 250 pages as novels triple its size.
Inspired by the 1933 meeting of anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (Mead's second husband and her third), and interweaving many other real characters and theoretical developments, "Euphoria" is a tale of passions, discoveries, jealousy, dedication, sexual mores and violence. It is King's fourth novel, following the acclaimed and totally different "Father of the Rain."
The story is stage-managed by Andrew Bankson, a bachelor Brit who's been alone for too long with his tribe in New Guinea and his painful memories of the past. When a December suicide attempt is foiled by Kiona tribesmen, he has to accept that he's "alive for Christmas after all, so I went to spend it with the drunks at the Government Station in Angoram."
There he runs into the American Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Fen, resting on their way to Australia after abandoning their research on a tribe whose savagery Nell could no longer stomach -- but which her husband found stimulating. Nell is already famous for, and Fen is already jealous of, a book whose real-life model is Mead's landmark "Coming of Age in Samoa." The couple exudes an intense, unhappy magnetism, and Bankson is swept off his feet.
Desperate to keep Nell nearby, Bankson offers to find them a better tribe in the vicinity -- and does, parking them upriver with the female-dominated Tam. What happens after that is revealed partly by Bankson and partly by entries from Nell's journal of those four months -- a journal Bankson is given five years later by Nell's dearest friend and colleague. These entries reveal the truth about Nell's marriage and her feelings for Bankson -- or as much of it as Nell was able to admit to herself. They also include details of her brilliant and deeply empathetic approach to her work.
After leaving Nell and Fen alone with the Tam for seven weeks, Bankson returns. His moment is chosen based on something Nell told him during their first meeting. "It's that moment about two months in, when you think you've finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It's a delusion -- you've only been there eight weeks -- and it's followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment, the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria." But this euphoric moment will turn out very differently in fiction than it did in real life.
"Euphoria" made me eager to return not only to the earlier novels of Lily King, but to the life and work of Mead herself. Clearly, we all need to read more of both.