Lily King’s Euphoria (2015, Grove Press) did not exactly leave me euphoric. On the bright side, I could almost feel the humid air of a tropic jungle while reading – at a quite enjoyable safe distance of the book, and not as suffocating as IRL. Also, it’s a page-turner, and sucked me in right from the start. The story is based on a part of the life of Maragret Mead, easily anthropology’s most popular (in the sense of widely-known; otherwise it is safe to say controversial, as well) figure at least in the English-speaking world. It describes a love-triangle between three anthropologists doing fieldwork among what they call “primitive tribes” on an island in New Guinea. In essence, it’s a story about love and ambition, women in science, and fieldwork.
But then, King’s appreciation of fieldwork is flat, with the enthusiastic Nell, who always seems to find joy in work, the ambitious Fen, who’s effortlessly going native, and the shy but smart Bankston, who’s facing an existential crisis in the face of the other. Fieldwork is about collecting facts in far away places and extracting the underlying logic. While this is historically accurate, because questions of representation and a different concept of culture were not yet to be thought of in the between-the-wars-era, it is a little disapppointing in endorsing the stereotypes of hiking-boots-and-khaki-pants-wearing pseudo-explorers.
But what disappointed me most, was that the guiding principle for the book clearly wasn’t “Show, rather than tell.”, because literally everything was told, either through letters, or the retrospective account of Bankston. The story could easily have filled 200 pages more, if it hadn’t been mostly telling what happened in the jungle. But overall, it was a worthwhile read, and possibly a good choice for a vacation in the warmer parts of this world.
How did I come across the book?
In my search for ethnographic novels, I came across Lily King. This is interessting insofar, as it is not a novel by an anthropologist, but about three of them, for a change.
When and where did I read it?
Right before heading to the field, pendeling between my two homes in Zurich and Konstanz.