Just back from a bright and breezy weekend in Brighton and Hove. One of the pleasures of Brighton is the big Waterstones which has five floors and a nice coffee shop on the top floor where you can glimpse the sea. I bought Lily King’s Euphoria which has been top of my wishlist for a while. I knew when I read the reviews and blog posts that a 1930's love story set on the Sepik river based on the early life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead would be just the kind of literary novel I enjoy.
Christmas Eve, 1932. Fen and his wife Nell, anthropologists studying the river tribes of Papua New Guinea, board a boat intending to leave the country. Wearing filthy clothes, suffering from tropical sickness and nursing cuts and bruises they contrast with the other couples on the boat, the ladies in stiff party dresses and men in dinner jackets passing around gin. From a conversation with the women on the boat Nell learns that a book she has published has caused quite a stir in her home country.
At the clubhouse they meet Bankson another renowned anthropologist who has been working with the Sepik river tribes for many years. Lonely and traumatised by the loss of his brothers Bankson is drawn to Nell and tends her wounds and persuades them both to stay on and work with another tribe. Thus begins a bitter love triangle between Nell, her handsome and manipulative husband Fen who ‘smells of Cambridge and youth’ and the kind-hearted and vulnerable Bankson.
I should say that the character of Nell is only loosely based on Margaret Mead and she is attractively drawn as a perceptive, methodical and hardworking scientist with an affectionate heart. I loved the description of Nell re-telling the story of Romeo and Juliet to the Tam tribe who find it hysterically funny.
When a talented writer breaks away from ‘domestic fiction’ there a huge creative possibilities. I’m thinking of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Euphoria is the best novel I've read this year. There is an excellent Vogue interview with Lily King here if you can get past all the ads. Cluttering literary interviews with fashion ads is sooo last year dahling!