Notes from the Book Group on November 25, 2014

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book Group

on Tuesday November 25, 2014

For Euphoria by Lily King

Present: Roo Dane, host, Sandra Lovell, Dorianne Low, Katherine O’Connor, Sydney Owens, Barbara Powell, Dodie Rees, Cornelia Robart, Wendy Weiss.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines euphoria as a state of well-being. This doesn’t begin to describe the tireless passion experienced by Nell Stone, American anthropologist working among tribes of New Guineau in the 1930s. Margaret Mead, the model for Nell, didn’t know the term flow, a concept introduced in the late 1970s, or endorphin rush, or they would surely have been used to describe the state of single-minded immersion in an activity where the emotions are contained, channeled and energized with joy.

Based (loosely?) on the lives of anthropologists of Margaret Mead’s generation, this story is a fascinating mix of psychological and sexual intrigue among the main characters and the revelation of ethnographic studies of the various tribes under study in (Papua-) New Guineau.

The question of methodology, such as whether an investigator inevitably changes the lives of the people she is studying came up. The book extolls the originality of Nell’s direct approach versus the more disengaged actions of Fen, her stern husband, and the disturbed, uncertain empathy of Bankson. Nell, who admits to not being objective, has amazing connectivity with the villagers but wanting to be free to lead her own life. She smarts from Fen’s demeaning treatment of her. Acerbic, demanding Fen is in this profession for the money, really doesn’t like women, and is jealous of his wife’s success. (Anthropology was one of the first professions in which women were not only accepted but also achieved a leading role.)

Several versions of sexual preference and behavior thread their way through the story.  Nell recounts that the first word she learns from the women in every tribe she visits is “vulva.”  She had been the lover of Helen, another American anthropologist. Bankson admires, respects, and loves Nell, who also feels intensely towards him. Bankson leaves the couple and travels up the Sepik, ostensibly to study another tribe but really to create a space in this inflammatory situation. Their attraction crackles but does not flame until a tragic finale. Why didn’t Nell leave Fen for Bankson? Loyalty? Mores of the era? The villagers have more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality: not perceiving tragedy in the story of Romeo and Juliet the village women laugh at the silly, wasteful ending.

The timeline of this book was a bit challenging, as echoes of the past crop up in the continuing story, mingled with mystical rumors. Life in buttoned-up colonial Australia, Bankson’s dreadful guilt at denouncing downed airmen to spare many other lives, the mysterious figure of Xambun, returned from the mines changed and adrift, potent in the eyes of the villagers and impotent in his own. Why was he killed? Was it suicide? Did Fen, having witnessed the inner sanctum of village men, have anything to do with his death? And, bookending the story, did Fen kill Nell on the ship homeward bound? What was the significance of the flute; why did she throw it overboard?

We had the good fortune of having several readers among us to enliven our discussion.  Students of anthropology and travelers who had visited the region regaled us with anecdotes.  For instance, tourists of today near the Sepik River can be stalled on their way to a sing-sing by tribal warfare over the theft of a pig. Police patrols blocked the roads when one tribe would chop down the trees of the offenders, who might then retaliate by burning down the houses of their aggressors. Re-enactments of historic incidents were said to provide local communities with cathartic release of various tensions.

This story is enjoyable even if one is not versed in anthropology. The story is enriched by sounds of nature, of laughter and mourning and danger, by descriptions of persons and the environs. The river and the jungle are ever-present, as are the children who attach themselves to Nell. The book cover shows a painting of a rainbow gum tree, representing the one in the western-style home of Nell and Fen.