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Book Review - Euphoria - An Historical Fiction Piece by Lily King (2014)

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“Euphoria” by Lily King was selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014.  My Book Club chose this historical novel as the subject of our discussion this month.

An historical novel is a fictitious rendition of actual persons and events which moves away from the actual history to construct a new and perhaps more interesting story, while maintaining the truths which prompted the writing in the first place.


Margaret Mead

                                                           Margaret Mead - Wikimedia


Author Lily King chose the anthropologist Margaret Mead as her subject, cloaked in the wrappings of a fictional anthropologist named Nell Fenwick.  Lily King researched the details of Margaret Mead’s 1933 field trip to the Sepik River, in Papua, New Guinea, during which Mead and her second husband, Reo Fortune (renamed Schyler Fenwick, or “Fen”) briefly collaborated with the man who became Mead’s third husband, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson (renamed in her story “Andrew Bankson).  The tale is a fictional version of the love triangle which resulted from the collaboration of the trio.

The story is narrated throughout by Andrew, interspersed with excerpts from Nell’s journal, all of which clarifies their situation and the drama that is occurring.


Nell is pictured as a humane female, a dedicated scientist, who has energy, vision, and compassion, who loves the human subjects she is studying.  She is American, and has had a recent success publishing her anthropological work entitled “The Children of Kirakira.”  We all know this famed study as “Coming of Age in Samoa.”


Coming of Age in Samoa

                                                             Wikimedia - {{PD}}


Nell and her husband, Fen, met while sailing to their destination in the South Pacific, and had a shipboard romance which prompted them to marry in the course of six weeks.  Fen comes off as self-centered, lazy, competitive, and jealous of Nell because of her positive notoriety.


The couple had been studying a tribe known as the Mumbanyo, a frighteningly barbaric people with a reputation for cannibalism, and were forced to leave abruptly to visit Fen’s native land of Australia.  A chance encounter with a former colleague of Fen’s prompted them to rethink their plans.  Andrew Bankson (the fictional version of Gregory Bateson) had been isolated by his research in the South Pacific for two years and longed for the company of fellow anthropologists.  He promised Fen and Nell that he would find them an interesting tribe to study, not far from the region where he was studying the Kiona river tribe.  In fact, Andrew had been on the verge of suicide when he encountered the couple and convinced them to stay in New Guinea.  Andrew’s two older brothers had died, one in the military, and the other due to suicide.  He was also suppressed by his over-bearing mother, even from a distance.  

The “Tam”

Nell had recently broken her glasses (it was hinted that Fen had purposely broken them), and also had a broken ankle which was slowly healing.  Both had malarial symptoms, were filthy, and were low in spirits because Nell had recently had a miscarriage.  Andrew found a tribe for them, called the “Tam,” seven hours away from him by motorboat.  He was able to visit his newly-found friends periodically which was good for all concerned.

The Flute

Fen was happy to remain in New Guinea.  He had learned about a totemic flute during their last days with the Mumbanyo, and coveted its ownership, believing that it held the key to his glory.  The flute was a significant find because it had written language on it, when none of the tribes of that area were believed previously to have written language.  Fen’s collaboration with Nell in her work was slowly dissolving, however, as was their marriage.

Andrew is Drawn to Nell

At one point, Andrew fell so desperately ill that he was compelled to spend a week in Fen and Nell’s hut before he was strong enough once more to go back to the Kionas.  Andrew fell hard for Nell.  He had never married and was drawn so strongly to Nell because of her easy way with the natives, her copious field notes, her drive and discipline, and her way of speaking.  He recounted his helpless love for her.

Nell’s Love for Her Subjects

In most anthropologic studies, objectivity is impossible because the very fact of observation changes the subjects being studied.  This was not the case with Nell and her subjects.  The Tam tribe realized that Nell was not only observing them but that she liked them also.  They were a matriarchal tribe where women played a dominant role, even in hunting and fishing.  They were not self-conscious because of her investigative mind; she was warm and kind.  The children, especially, flocked around her as she explored their everyday lives.


Map of Papua, New Guinea

                                                Map of Papua, New Guinea - Wikimedia

The Grid

The trio collaborated on a piece of work which they called “The Grid.”  They used their present and past observations to produce an analysis of human social systems, slotting tribes and peoples, as well as celebrities they knew, onto the Grid through adjectives which were prevalent in four separate categories.  They looked closely at the differences between blacks and whites.  In the novel, “The Grid” was published to acclaim, but after it was lauded and used in a perverted form, wrongly claimed by the Third Reich in Germany that the black race was proven to be  inferior, Andrew had it suppressed. 

Fen, though, was not pulling his weight.  He did not particularly want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native.  He chose to go off to their huts for days at a time to learn about their tribal practices.

The Affair

It was during one of Fen’s jaunts that Andrew could no longer keep from Nell his love for her.  Yes, they had an affair, but it was tastefully recounted, and was a mutual, empathic affection.  Nell did finally become pregnant but it was not revealed whether Fen or Andrew was the father.

It would not be fair to reveal the ending of this fictional piece which was not true of Margaret Mead’s life at that time.

Meaning of Euphoria

The title of the work, “Euphoria,” is derived from a statement in the book which says “typically, two months into fieldwork, when a culture suddenly begins to make sense, it is at that moment that the place feels entirely yours.  It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”

Lily King

In 2014, Lily King won the New England Book Award for Fiction for “Euphoria” as well as the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Fiction.  She has also written three novels entitled “The Pleasing Hour,” “The English Teacher,” and “Father of the Rain.”  I hope to hear more of this prolific writer in the future.

Lily King is scheduled to speak about her book “Euphoria” at the Chautauqua Institution on Thursday, July 28, 2016.



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  1. Emily Eakin "‘Euphoria’ by Lily King." The New York Times. 08/06/2014. 27/04/2016 <Web >

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