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Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria. The word is defined as - elation, ecstasy, joy, jubilation, rapture, excitement, exhilaration, bliss, exultation and despair. The novel Euphoria by Lily King contains all of these in equal measure.

There is an Amy Lowell poem referred to in this novel, titled Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey, 
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness. 
Now you are like morning bread, 
Smooth and pleasant. 
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour, 
But I am completely nourished.


Throughout the novel we are reminded of these words – new love, infatuation like wine, and long time love, wine that has become bread. Love that is possession and love that is freedom.

The story takes place, primarily, in New Guinea in the 1930s, and concerns the lives of three anthropologists, the American woman, Nell Stone, her husband the Australian Schyler Fenwick, and the Englishman Andrew Bankson.

Nell Stone is famous – or infamous – for the publication of her bestselling book The Children of Kirakira, about the sex lives of the children in a remote community where she lived for a time.

Now married, and planning to work together, Nell and Fen are settling into another remote community to study the people and their culture. These two work in very different ways – Nell takes both an academic and a personal approach, she attempts to befriend the people she is studying. She makes meticulous notes, recording her observances and impressions. Nell succeeds in encouraging people to tell their stories, to open up for her a window to their past. Fen, meanwhile, is defensive of his methods. He is both secretive and very jealous of Nell’s celebrity not only among other anthropologists but the general public.  Fen tends to make the facts fit his own pre-determined thesis.

Into this mix comes Andrew Bankson, a man who has been the only white man in the region for too long and is desperate for friends of his own kind. There is an immediate attraction between Nell and Bankson – intellectual, academic and physical. Both are honest in their conversation and their approach to their work. They are without ego. They speak of poetry, they share intimate stories of their past.

Nell believes that all people, even those isolated from western influence “are human, with fully functional human minds”. This is in stark contrast to Freud’s widely accepted belief at the time “that primitives are like Western children”.

I found this novel utterly fascinating, not only in the relationships between the main characters but also the description of the lives of the anthropologists. Nell and Fen travelled with trunks and trunks full of stuff – thousands of books, typewriters, a mattress and every conceivable thing that could make their lives more comfortable. Comfort much needed in this hostile environment, of deadly insects, snakes, scorpions, crocodile and disease – there is no shop to pop out to for any of the things we might take for granted when travelling – but still.

Euphoria is a novel I guarantee you will not be able to put down – perfect for a cold winter day on the couch.



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