Image of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea found on metrolic.com
Once upon a time, in a land very far away, there lived strange, isolated, fearsome people who cared not for books, electricity, Catholicism, Christianity, clothing. They lived in tribes along a river called the Sepik, rife with crocodiles, and ate bizarre foods, conducted outlandish rituals, they intentionally scarred the bodies of their young men and occasionally indulged in orgies of sexual abandon. They made art, made war, traded goods and each tribe spoke its own language.
Photo, National Geographic
But all good things must come to an end. In Euphoria, Lily King’s intoxicating trek into this exotic locale, three anthropologists (Australian, American and British) find themselves far from home. King’s anthropologists are simulacrums of Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and her future husband, Gregory Bateson.
Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933, from The Guardian
Euphoria was named a top ten best of 2014 by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, NPR and others and won the 2014 Kirkus Prize. The New York Times lauded the novel, calling it a “taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace — a love triangle in extremis.” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/08/books/review/euphoria-by-lily-king.html
When Nell and her Aussie husband Fen appear in Euphoria, Brit Bankson has been rescued by natives trying to drown himself in the river. He is sick, lonely, depressed and hopeless in his work. For the most part, King chooses Bankson to narrate the tale further into the heart of darkness, through the tendrils of roots and vines, into the smoky interiors of huts and along the blackness of a river at night.
Bankson tends to Nell, wrapping her broken ankle, gifting her a pair of glasses to replace her broken ones, offering her aspirin for a fever. Bankson and Nell are drawn together intellectually at the same time as Nell and Fen are at odds: Fen jealous of Nell’s success in publishing a detailed account of the sexual exploits of a tribe she had studied before their marriage. Nell ensnares Bankson with her brain, her purpose, her methods and her words:
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.
As Bankson falls for Nell, so does the reader of Euphoria. Believe me, I stay in the least camp-like environment I can find and yet by the end of the book through the beauty of King’s prose even I could understand, if not seek to emulate, the passion that drove Margaret Mead and others like her to explore to the ends of the earth. As Nell explains:
Why are we, with all our “progress,” so limited in understanding & sympathy & the ability to give each other real freedom? Why with our emphasis on the individual are we still so blinded by the urge to conform? … I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world.
It’s a sensual, exciting, glorious read. I am going to suggest it for my next book club.
I will offer my book club a version of one of Bankson’s most pleasant meals, barramundi and champagne.
Here’s a lovely looking recipe for barramundi, which also has the advantage of being sustainable and available at Whole Foods, apparently. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/recipe/lemongrass-steamed-barramundi
So this is where I’m really having fun.
Jungle Love, by The Time (one of my favorite boogie songs from an earlier life) http://youtu.be/P9DdexHiGmU
The Lion Sleeps Tonight, the Tokens
Jungle Boogie, Kool & The Gang
Bungle in the Jungle, Jethro Tull
You get the idea.
Nell: Amy Adams
Fen: Eric Bana
Bankson: Hugh Dancy
Enjoy! Happy Reading and Eating.