Top positive review
I wish I could give it more stars.
Reviewed in the United States on January 24, 2018
I usually finish a book, and write the review the next day, at the very latest. This time, I’ve been ruminating about and contemplating what to write, not agonizing, but definitely obsessing a little, for over a week. I needed this time, because I loved this story and these characters so much. Lily King is obviously a brilliant and inspired writer, and I felt the same way when I was reading Euphoria (inspired, not brilliant (I wish!)). It’s the fascinating and dramatic tale of a love triangle, set in 1930’s New Guinea. The three characters involved are anthropologists, two men and a woman. While they’re experiencing their own desire-fueled, jealous emotional turbulence, they’re exploring, and documenting the culture and customs of the Tam tribe, including the gender-bending roles and rituals between the men and women of the tribe. Nell Stone, the woman, is married to Schuyler Fenwick (Fen), and they’ve left the Mumbanyo tribe (“fierce warriors”) because Nell couldn’t relate to, or tolerate the tribe’s violent and aggressive nature. Fen, however, resents her because they left. He also resents her accomplishment. She has written a best seller, and is currently a famous anthropologist. She has kept her maiden name. He seems to feel like he’s merely regarded as Nell Stone’s husband. She wants to stay married to him. She wants very much to have a child. There have been some tragic and dark incidents involving babies, Nell’s own, and the babies of the Mumbanyo tribe. These incidents torture and haunt Nell.
Let’s get the one complaint out of the way (not enough to subtract a star, or even a fraction of a star – actually, I wish I could give this book more than five stars). Sometimes the author hints darkly at an event instead of clearly explaining. She infers. Now, some literary-type readers prefer the subtlety of inferences. I admire those who understand them. I do not consider them posers. I love the ambiguities and possibilities of an unanswered (or unanswerable) question. But, in this instance, and some others, I wish I knew more about what happened before the story opens, especially Fen’s dark past, as part of a huge family, living in isolation in the Australian outback. I’m pretty sure about the type of behaviors that this one, dark hint refers to, but not entirely sure. The resulting twist in Fen’s character, however, is more important than the particular, salacious details of his nefarious family history, and his acceptance and expectation of evil and violence in every civilization steers his actions as an adult anthropologist living with the tribes along the banks of the Sepik River (“flamboyantly serpentine, the Amazon of the South Pacific” – see? Isn’t she brilliant?).
Of the three main characters, Fen is the only one who doesn’t have a narrative voice. The reader only knows him through the first person narration of Andrew Bankson, and the third person limited narration of his wife, Nell Stone (loosely based on the real-life anthropologist Margaret Mead). We only get to hear his voice through dialogue and observe his actions. He’s the least sympathetic character throughout. Although I did not love him as a person, I loved the creation of him, the complexity of his sometimes-evil nature. And, I understood him, although I could never empathize with him. I’ve met him many times, here in the real world. He reminds me of so many men I’ve known well. He’s Australian, but in many ways, like an American man.
So, let’s get on with my love letter to Lily King. I plunged under, into the world she created with her words, and did not care to come up for air, ever. I once had a writing teacher who told us to create a list when we got “stuck”. Here’s the best list I’ve ever read (describing Andrew Bankson’s past): “The house I grew up in there, Hemsley House, had been in the possession of Bankson scientists for three generations, its every desktop, drawer, and wardrobe stuffed with scientist’s remnants: spyglasses, test tubes, finger scales, pocket magnifiers, loupes, compasses, and a brass telescope; boxes of glass slides, and ento pins, geodes, fossils, bones, teeth, petrified wood, framed beetles and butterflies, and thousands of loose insect carcasses that turned to powder upon contact.” A positively Dickensian list, but better, less preposterously wordy and more utilitarian. I wanted to walk through Hemsley House, and touch those things. In a way, I felt like I had.
I could go on and on. I underlined passages and made notations in the margins. I lived inside these pages. There are so many layers, and so many insights and ideas to explore and rethink. I keep going back. After all, anthropology is the study of humans and their lives, their relationships to each other and to their environment, their art, their chronicles. It’s everything. I keep going back to a diagram (a “grid”) that Fen, Andrew and Nell create together, categorizing personalities into the four main directions on a compass. You don’t have to be just North, South, East, or West, though, you can be a Northwest personality, or a Southeast personality. This novel is so complex and so deep. It asks so many beautifully unanswerable questions. Above all, this story leaves the reader with a way to look at, appreciate and observe cultures that are highly civilized, but considered to be primitive and inferior to traditional Western culture. These characters view anthropology through a wide, panoramic lens, a zoom lens, a microscopic lens, and just about any other lens you can think of, including no lens, just immersion. It’s also about how our ideas, like our children, take on a life of their own once they’re launched out into the world. You can take aim, but you have no control after they’re flying free. It’s about how we think and work as individuals and how we work collectively. It’s about everything that’s important in life.