Lily King's fourth novel (after the award-winning Father of the Rain) was inspired by a moment in 1933 when the lives of three young anthropologists — Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson — intersected along the Sepik River in New Guinea. Using this as a point of departure, and changing the actual story line drastically, King weaves together the tale of a tragic love triangle and an exhilarating description of three rivals working to shape a new social science discipline.
Euphoria begins on an ominous note. Nell and Fen, a couple who started their fieldwork shortly after marrying, are leaving an aggressive tribe that blames bad luck on "lack of homicide."
"As they were leaving the Mumbanyo someone threw something at them," King writes. "It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing. 'Another dead baby,' Fen said. He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn't know if he was joking."
Nell, an American already known for her first book in the field, is suffering from a malarial fever and various lesions. She has insisted they leave the Mumbanyo after five months, angering Fen, a flinty Australian who envies her success. At a party they encounter Bankson, a British anthropologist who has just survived a suicide attempt. Desperately lonely, he convinces them to return to the Sepik River with him, and promises to find them a new tribe to study. Soon Nell and Fen are settled in by a lake with the fictitious Tam, upriver from Bankson's work with the Kiona people.
Euphoria is structured for maximum suspense, with artful shifts from Bankson's point of view to Nell's (he's the primary narrator; her daily logs provide her intimate thoughts throughout). King writes in glorious detail of the first days when everything is new, including the language, and that moment two months in when, as Nell puts it, "you've got a handle on the place ... the place feels entirely yours. It's the briefest, purest euphoria."
And she underlines the ironies of cultural relativity: Some of the best moments come when Nell is thrust back into Western culture. At one point, examining several white women, she continues her note-taking habit:
"__ornamentation of neck, wrists, fingers ...
"__the valued thing is the man, not having one, necessarily, but having the ability to attract one."
Each of the three has ambition, a competitive spirit, and ideas to explore. Nell senses the ways in which culture shapes gender differences, and suspects Fen is projecting onto his subjects. Bankson becomes the first anthropologist to admit to being "duped and tricked and mocked" by his subjects. Fen, whose specialty includes religious totems, has a secret plan to rob the cannibalistic Mumbanyo of their most sacred object.
The arrival of an iconoclastic new book by Helen, Nell's lover and a fellow disciple of Franz Boas, leads to an excitement so intense they read it aloud to each other from beginning to end. "Looking at our faces you might have said we were all feverish and half mad," Bankson muses. Helen's book "made us feel we could rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew."
Inspired, the three brainstorm to develop the concept of the "Grid," a method of arranging nations and tribes according to their character: aggressive Americans in the north, responsive, nurturing Italians in the South, and so on. (The "Grid" is fictional, but it bears a strong resemblance to a cultural map developed by Margaret Mead and her husbands.) During this period of intense work, Bankson and Nell end up acting on their sexual attraction. It's a fateful choice, leading Bankson to wonder, "If I had not stayed but gone back to Kiona, would any of the rest have happened?"
That question is the prelude to King's extraordinary conclusion, and a final scene that adds yet another fresh perspective. Atmospheric and sensual, with startling images throughout, Euphoria is an intellectually stimulating tour de force.