By Chet Yarbrough
By: Lily King
Narrated by: Simon Vance, Xe Sands
Euphoria is a novelist eye view of anthropology. It is influenced by the life of Margaret Mead. Educated as an anthropologist, Mead spent several years studying the native population of Samoa. She wrote a book (“Coming of Age in Samoa”) that was acclaimed as a seminal work on “nature versus nurture” in cultural determination. Mead relied on interviews in her study. By relying on what she is told by Samoan’ women about the sexual mores of their culture, Mead’s reputation became tarnished. The women Mead interviewed recanted their comments when follow-up interviews were done by a later anthropologist. The interviewees explain that they lied as a joke to entertain their friends.
King’s main character is an American’ female anthropologist named Nell Stone. Nell relies on the interview process for her research on an island culture in New Guinea. King makes Nell a sympathetic character that works hard to collect and organize interview data. Nell works in a highly uncomfortable tropical environment. She is married to a character named Fen, an Australian–also educated as an anthropologist. Fen is a less sympathetic character; and later is characterized as a bad guy.
In the wilds of New Guinea, Nell and Fen meet a third anthropologist, an Englishman named Andrew Bankson. This is in the late 1930s. Bankson falls in love with Nell. Bankson is enthralled by insights she draws from her interviews and observation. He wishes to emulate her methodology for understanding native’ culture. Fen, in contrast, is skeptical of his wife’s research methods. Fen is motivated by adventure, fame, and fortune, rather than cultural understanding or preservation.
King’s novel addresses a range of cultural issues like the role of women, sexual relationships, spousal abuse, love, greed, and cultural integrity.
King writes an entertaining story that makes one understand how impossible it is to objectively evaluate culture as an observer. Anthropological observation is like the observational conundrum of physics; i.e. in the act of measurement a scientist changes the truth of what is being examined.
One feels some sympathy for Margaret Mead’s mistakes while listening to a well written love story. Listening to Lily King’s Euphoria reinforces the meaning of “Things Fall Apart” (a book by a Nigerian author). Every culture is precious because it reveals the origin, similarities, and differences of human society. Maybe, but who knows? As an observer, how can one be sure?