EUPHORIA. By Lilly King. Atlantic Monthly Press. 256 pages. $25.
"It's Christmas Eve silly," an Australian woman says to Nell Stone at the start of Lilly King's latest novel "Euphoria." Nell and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick (Fen), are traveling by boat up the Sepik River, returning to civilization after months of living among the violent Mumbanyo tribe in New Guinea. Nell is covered with lesions, "a fresh gash on her hand from a sago palm thorn," is sick with malaria and doesn't know that its Christmas.
The woman asks if Nell has been "studying the natives," and Nell struggles to put their story to words. "Sometimes you just find a culture that breaks your heart." As the boat motors slowly down the river, Nell tries not to think about the villages they pass - "All the people she was missing, the tribes she would never know and the words she would never hear, the worry that they might right now be passing the one people she was meant to study, a people whose genius she would unlock, and who would unlock hers, a people who had a way of life that made sense to her."
In "Euphoria," King has drawn inspiration from the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead who studied tribes in New Guinea in the 1930s, and whose subsequent writings, including "Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies," were received with curiosity and controversy. King reimagines Mead's adventures as a young woman in the wild in these evocative pages, introducing us to a land a people, and a way of life quite unlike our own.
At the Christmas Eve party where Nell and Fen are deposited, they meet Andrew Bankson, a fellow anthropologist whose is fresh from a failed attempt at suicide by drowning. He, too, has been living among the natives, and senses a reprieve to his loneliness with the arrival of Nell and Fen.
"My heart whipped in my throat and all I could think was how to keep them, how to keep them," he recounts. "I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter, and I wasn't sure how to hide it from them."
From the start the relationship between the three is intense, they "pummel" one another with questions, and are needy for one another for different and complex reasons that are inexplicable even to themselves.
"Nell and Fen had chased away my thoughts of suicide. But what had they left me with? Fierce desires, a great tide of feeling of which I could make little sense, an ache that seemed to have no name but want. I want. Intransitive. No object. It was the opposite of wanting to die. But it was scarcely more bearable."
Bankson agrees to help Nell and Fen find another, less violent tribe to study, and leads them to Lake Tam. The Tam natives construct a living space on the lake's shores for Nell and Fen who get to work learning the language and customs of the people. Nell surrounds herself with the children, pulling them onto her lap and playing games, while Fen builds with the men.
When Bankson returns to Lake Tam, the three anthropologists are drawn closer together in a circle of intimacy and collaboration that seems destined to end in despair. Like Mead's love triangle that ended in divorce, the dynamics of this intimate group who are isolated from the Western world are palpable in King's deft hands.
As Nell grows frustrated with Fen's elusive approach to studying their chosen tribe, she is drawn to Bankson, whose passion for anthropology mirrors her own. Bankson relates their story as if propelled by a still unquenched desire to understand the past.
"Looking at our faces you might have said we were all feverish and half mad, and perhaps you would have been right, but (the work) made us feel we could rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew."
The tension and desire build slowly, and King's writing keeps us captivated until the very end. As Bankson and Nell pull closer together, Fen is pushed out and makes a dangerous and destructive choice.
In "Euphoria" King invites readers to question the moral implications and the subjectivity of observation, and she opens our eyes to the idea that desire in all its forms is vast and irrepressible.
Reviewer Amy S. Mercer is marketing manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.