Rebecca's Reviews > Euphoria

Euphoria by Lily King
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, read-via-netgalley

“The story you think you know is never the real one.” What a great novel about the love triangle between three anthropologists (one American, one English, and one Australian) working among the tribes of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s. Apparently it’s based on the lives of Margaret Mead and two of her husbands, but knowledge of the real-life antecedents is unnecessary; this book is its own intense, self-contained world. Two other novels I’ve read in the past few years, The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, have very similar themes of tribal savagery vs. Western ‘civilization’, but this for me was much the most psychologically satisfying adventure tale of the three.

The narration struck me as very interesting: you’re convinced it’s from a third-person omniscient perspective until the very last sentence of the first chapter, when you realize it’s actually from Andy Bankson’s first-person point-of-view. Nell’s field journals are then a way of interspersing her own thoughts (though I reckon having excerpts from her published books could have been another strategy for introducing a different voice and register). Bankson (the Englishman) is a melancholy and introspective narrator: “I find I am more and more interested in this question of subjectivity, of the limited lens of the anthropologist, than I am in the traditions and habits of the Kiona. Perhaps all science is merely self-investigation.”

Nell (the Margaret Mead character) is wonderfully plucky – observant and forceful, yet lovable for her utter enthusiasm for her work. As her first school report card read, “Elinor has an overenthusiasm for her own ideas and a voluble dearth for those of others.” Despite her distaste for some of the tribal practices she’s come across (infanticide, polyamory), she relishes the task of learning a culture. What she loves most is “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...and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”


(By the by, I’m not sure there has ever been a more excruciating sex scene than the one in the first chapter. This doesn’t bode well: “‘Time to procreate,’ [Fen] said in a singsong.” And on it goes from there. King should definitely have been up for a “Bad Sex” award for this one! [Although the prize’s remit is slightly different.] It’s well written, of course, but cringe-worthy to imagine.)
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Reading Progress

May 1, 2014 – Shelved
May 1, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
December 2, 2014 – Started Reading
December 7, 2014 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
December 7, 2014 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
December 7, 2014 – Finished Reading

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Mona Excellent review, Rebecca. I do agree that the sex scene between Fen and Nell was cringeworthy! I had no idea there was a "Bad Sex" award :)


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