Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2018

Euphoria, by Lily King

I am indebted to Tony from Tony’s Book World whose enticing review made me pounce on this book when I saw it on display at the library.  I was intrigued because the novel is set in New Guinea and I’ve read only a few books with that setting.  But I was also interested in a book that fictionalises an episode in the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) because, as Tony says:

If you have ever wondered what it must have been like for Margaret Mead and her associates to travel to these remote villages and to stay there and become friends and study the people in these tribes, this is the novel for you.

From what I have been able to gather about the life of Margaret Mead from Wikipedia, the novel departs from the historical record in significant ways, but that does not detract from its value as an insight into anthropology as a study.   When the book opens and Schuyler Fenwick (Fen) introduces his famous wife Nell Stone to the English anthropologist Andrew Bankson, he is shocked by her devastatingly tired face:

No one had ever mentioned, in all the talk of Nell Stone, that she was so slight, or sickly. She offered me a hand with a thinly healed gash across the palm.  To take it would mean causing her discomfort.  Her smile bloomed naturally but the rest of her face was sallow and her eyes seemed coated over by pain.  She had a small face and large smoke-coloured eyes like a cuscus, the small marsupial Kiona children kept as pets. (p.18)

She is also nursing what she says is a sprained ankle from 17 months ago, but which is probably broken, and she has visible lesions on her arm.  Bankson, foreshadowing the love he will come to feel for Nell, provides the medicines and treatment for these wounds that her husband has so conspicuously failed to do.  But this is no soppy romantic triangle because these three are intellectual companions.

Bankson is nursing wounds of a psychological nature.  His suicide attempt has failed but the causes of his trauma remain.  The long isolation of his solitary work in a remote village fosters brooding on the tragic deaths of his brothers James and Martin.  His widowed mother is a martinet who doesn’t appreciate the value of his work, and also festering in his troubled mind is his father’s disappointment that the wrong son survived but failed to follow in his footsteps.

But the other factor contributing to Bankson’s misery is the way in which he works, and the arrival of Nell and Fen enables him to witness the way they enter into the lives of the communities that they study.  Fen spends days working with the men to build a canoe.  Nell participates in the lives of the women while also observing them keenly and taking copious notes.  As she says to Bankson, she is always working but it is work that forges social and emotional connection.

The question that lies at the heart of this insightful tale, is whether that connectedness, which is protective of the anthropologist’s psyche when marooned in a culture remote from his own, distorts the anthropological findings.  Is it better to observe dispassionately from outside the group being studied, or do you learn more by becoming a part of the community even at the risk of bringing in values and commodities that change the behaviours of the group being studied?

And does being part of a group change the anthropologist?  Fen was a little unstable when Nell met him.  He had been studying the Dobuan people who live without repression man’s worst nightmares of the ill-will of the universe.  Bankson admits that he couldn’t have coped with the fear, but discerns the effects on Fen:

…it occurred to me that the Dobu sounded a lot like him: his paranoid streak, his dark humour, his distrust of pleasure, his secrecy.  I couldn’t help questioning the research.  When only one person is the expert of a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis? (p.177)

Euphoria is a fascinating book.  The love triangle is apparently based on real events, but it doesn’t get in the way of what really interested me: the vivid detail of life in a New Guinea village and the interrogation of issues that bedevil anthropology today.

Thanks for the recommendation, Tony!

Update 16/7/18 Becky at Becky’s Books read it too, and see Charlotte’s review too at Booklog for Charlotte.

Author: Lily King
Title: Euphoria
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2014
ISBN: 9781743534991
Source: Dandenong Library



  1. Well good for you, Lisa – I read Euphoria a couple years ago and enjoyed it tremendously. I gave it a 9 out of 10 possible. it took me hours and hours to finish the last 30 pages or so – I really didn’t want it to end so I found all sorts of stuff to keep me busy – even vacuuming!


    • I see that like me you were not interested in the romance!


  2. I am pleased, not euphoric, that you liked Euphoria. I will be watching for Lily Tuck’s next novel.


    • Ha ha!
      It’s always nice to discover a new author:)


  3. I really enjoyed this novel. I read it a few years ago so I haven’t written a review but I still remember it and how much I liked it.


    • Well that’s the ultimate test, eh? The best books are the ones we remember IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was quite taken with this book too, so it was good to revisit it through your eyes. Along with the complications of anthropological work, it was the remarkable life of Margaret Mead that were important for me.


  5. I have read Euphoria I realised after I checked out a synopsis but I can’t remember whether it was for ANZLit or whether like you I picked it up because of the New IGuinea setting

    Cheers Carol



    • Well, we don’t often get to read books set there – which is strange really, considering how it’s just next door…


  6. I just loved this book!


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