The opening sentences of Euphoria, Lily King’s superb novel, thrust the reader right into its dark heart: 

As they were leaving the Mumbanyo someone threw something at them.  It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.

“Another dead baby,” Fen said.

He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.

”She” is Nell Stone, in a canoe with her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, on the Sepik River in New Guinea; she is also a version of Margaret Mead, while Fen is drawn from Mead’s second husband, Reo Fortune. Soon enough the couple will run into Andrew Bankson, a fictional depiction of Gregory Bateson, Mead’s third husband, and, later, we will hear from Helen Benjamin, a character owing her existence to Mead’s sometime lover, Ruth Benedict.

Nell is suffering from fever, a gashed hand, neuritis in her arms, a badly healed broken ankle, lesions, a possible case of ringworm, and, as becomes increasingly clear, a terrible marriage to a man whose combative personality is worsened by resentment toward her. The couple has just spent a year and half, which is pretty much the length of their marriage, away from westernized society, first with a peaceable tribe in the north and then, for the last six months, with the cruel, seemingly heartless, and certainly hostile Mumbanyo, a tribe fascinating to Fen, but intolerable and horrifying to Nell.  Her insistence that they leave rankles him, but he is in no position to refuse, as the two are living on her grant money; Nell has become famous — or infamous — for a book on the child-rearing practices and sexual freedom in a tribe of Solomon Islanders. 

The couple is en route to the town of Angoram, farther down the river, from which they will set off to Australia to find themselves an Aborigine tribe to study. The plan dissolves when they run into Bankson, ”a teetering, disheveled, unaccountably vulnerable bargepole of a man,” a fellow anthropologist swamped in a sad past — two dead brothers, a difficult, disapproving mother, an attempt at suicide — and consumed with loneliness. He cannot bear to lose their company and promises to find them a tribe close to him, worth extending their stay. So he brings them to the Tam, some seven hours up the river from the tribe Bankson is studying, close enough for him to visit the couple. Nell, drawn to his kindness and genuine interest in her work, is enlivened by his inquiring intelligence; Fen is glad of white male companionship. The coming together of the three produces an emotional, intellectual, and sexual ferment, both creative and destructive.

The novel is told mostly via Bankson’s first-person recollections, interleaved with some third-person passages from Nell’s point of view and excerpts from her journal. There is no question that Nell and Bankson are the sympathetic characters. Her empathy and genius shine out, as does his considerateness and noncompetitive interest in others’ work. Fen, on the other hand, is a stubborn brute, but a three-dimensional one and quite as interesting as the other two. King makes this particular man’s plight of playing second fiddle to a woman palpable: After all, ”he had planned on his name becoming a household word, not hers.” Perhaps, but Fen has written only one monograph; his present work is stuck, and it is likely to stay that way given his proclivities. As Nell sees it, ”Fen didn’t want to study the natives, he wanted to be a native.  His attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity.… It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public.… His interest lay in experiencing, in doing. Thinking was derivative. Dull. The opposite of living.”

In contrast, Nell puts up with the hardships of primitive living as unfortunate necessities, and solely to experience the intellectual rush of understanding. Indeed, the novel’s title comes from what she likes best about her work; it is, she says ”that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp…at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” Even though, as she also points out, this sense of complete understanding is a delusion, it is a sensation she lives for. Hers is the life of the mind. 

As such, Fen is, to say the least, not a good match. King lets us see clearly how much fragile psychological capital he has invested in, for instance, rejecting Nell’s observation that in Tam society women have the upper hand. And King lets us take in fully — to our dismay — how Fen becomes involved in the novel’s great tragedy, one that brings together, disastrously, the ruined life of a villager recently returned from a stint in the mines and an irreplaceable sacred object that represents, to this anthropologist manqué, a short-cut to fame.

The baldness of Fen’s attraction to the sort of life he finds in native society, as well as his craving for success in Western eyes, sets Nell’s own desires in relief. What she yearns for is, in part, a reaction to her oppressive marriage, her intellectual vitality repeatedly triggering her husband’s sarcastic sniping and threat of violence; but her dreams also make up one wave in an incoming tide of ideas. She is looking for what can only be called a Western ideal in native culture: In her journal she writes: ”I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work, in these far-flung places, to find a group of people who give each other the room to be in whatever way they need to be. And maybe I will never find it all in one culture but maybe I can find parts of it in several cultures, maybe I can piece it together like a mosaic and unveil it to the world. But the world is deaf. The world — and really I mean the West — has no interest in change or self-improvement…” 

Margaret Mead was, of course, among those who gave the struggle for this sort of individual freedom and personal fulfillment common currency in our culture. The ideas are hackneyed now — there is hardly an advertisement that doesn’t invoke them — but the reader does feel how fresh and attractive they were at this juncture, and more than that: how both Nell’s intellect and the circumstances of her repressive marriage, contributed to their formulation.

Even though Euphoria is wrapped up with the history of ideas, it is a novel first and foremost. So, here is a tip: You will spare yourself a good deal of puzzlement by understanding from the outset that, while four of the characters are inspired by the lives and personalities of four real anthropologists, their fates are entirely different. In other words, this is not a fictional retelling of historical events, but a work of art with its own plot and integrity. Notwithstanding, it is also a novel that gains resonance and depth from actual people, their relationships, and the ideas that sprang out of them.