In this extraordinary novel, author Lily King transports readers across the globe to the steamy, crocodile-infested jungles of Papua New Guinea and back in time to the 1930’s to tell us a story that is gorgeous, riveting, and insightful. The scope of this novel is awe-inspiring: without any ornate prose or lengthy diatribes — indeed in only two hundred fifty six pages — King manages to convey an enormous amount to us about vast and varied topics. Discussions the book brings to life include, but are not limited to: scientific objectivity, colonialism, ethics, patriarchy, gender and sexual identity, social progress, Western dominance, and environmental degradation and these topics are broached all within the confines of a story with only three main characters and covering only a few scant months in time.
Euphoria centers on three anthropologists studying and living among the tribes of the Sepik River basin in Papua New Guinea. These three come to represent the varying, and largely untested, approaches to the “nascent, barely twenty-year old social science. Anthropology was in transition, moving from the study of men dead to the study of living people, and slowly letting go of the rigid belief that the natural and inevitable culmination of every society is the Western model.”
Nell is a brilliant young researcher, flush with recent global success, who is pioneering an entirely new approach to living with and learning from native peoples. Her approach is grounded in deep respect for the people she studies and calls for in-depth analysis of the cultures and customs with the hope of coming to understand the meaning those rituals hold for the people themselves, not with how they compare to Western models.
Traveling with her, under the guise of being her research partner, is her husband Fen, a man both sexually and professionally jealous of his wife. Fen scoffs at Nell’s methods, at her intellectualism in general, and disdains any attempt by her to corral his observations into usable data. “Fen did not want to study natives; he wanted to be a native. His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity” but to live without rules or consequences. “His interest lay in experiencing, in doing. Thinking was derivative. Dull. The opposite of living.” It becomes clear that he is obsessed with achieving successes that will outstrip his wife’s and hopes to do so with a discovery, not through diligent research or book authorship. Fen’s most stinging criticisms, perhaps, are targeted towards women, who he ridicules as less than, including his wife. Despite Nell copious research, “Fen disagreed on every conclusion she drew on the topic of matriarchy. He said she was blinded by her desire to see [women] this way; he said whatever power women had was temporary and situational.”
Finally, there is Bankston, a reluctant anthropologist who despite years in the bush cannot find a method of study and research that sits well with him. He has fallen back on the study of tribes people in what Nell refers to, with horror, as an outdated practice akin to “zoology.” It is only through exposure to Nell — both her brilliance and her modern approach to social science — that his work blossoms, as do his feelings for her which spark jealousy among the two men.
Together these three anthropologists begin to create a framework for studying other cultures that will dispel the myths of Western dominance. The further they descend into their theories, the more they begin to challenge all of their world views; what emerges are radical new ideas about roles of women, gender and sexual fluidity, and ways of living on the earth that are at odds with the culture of exploitation. Standing back in Sydney after years in the wild, Bankston is struck “by how clearly these streets were made for and by amoral cowards, men who made money in rubber or sugar or copper or steel in remote places where no one questioned their practices, their treatment of others, or their greed.”
This was a completely captivating novel that raises many more questions than it answers but none the less leaves readers feeling as if they have discovered something stunning alongside Nell, Fen, and Bankston.