Blandly scrolling through salacious tweets from nubile pop stars, we can hardly imagine the thrill of Margaret Mead’s revelations in 1928. More than 80 years ago, at a time when contraceptives couldn’t be sent through the mail and movies could only show the “tragic” consequences of premarital sex, Mead published “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Her study of the psychosexual development of adolescents on the island of Ta’u confronted a self-satisfied United States, where it was still possible to speak of one’s parochial mores as natural and, of course, superior.

With her influence on the sexual revolution, Mead was a globe-spanning iconoclast, alarming some and cheering others, becoming finally something of a totem upon which various groups cast their hopes and fears. So it’s refreshing to see the world’s most famous anthropologist brought down to human scale and placed at the center of this svelte new book by Lily King.

“Euphoria” is King’s first work of historical fiction. For this dramatic new venture, she retains all the fine qualities that made her three previous novels insightful and absorbing, but now she’s working on top of a vast body of scholarly work and public knowledge. And yet “Euphoria” is also clearly the result of ferocious restraint; King has resisted the temptation to lard her book with the fruits of her research. Poetic in its compression and efficiency, “Euphoria” presumes some familiarity with Mead’s biography for context and background, and yet it also deviates from that history in promiscuous ways.

The story reimagines a brief collaboration in New Guinea in the early 1930s involving Mead; her husband, Reo Fortune; and her future husband, Gregory Bateson. King names her characters Nell, Fen and Bankson and presents an episode soaked with romantic despair, tinged with mourning. Bankson begins his narration by announcing, “Three days earlier, I’d gone to the river to drown myself.” Pulled from the water by natives who advise him not to swim with rocks in his pockets, he might have tried again if he hadn’t run into the best-
selling anthropologist Nell Stone and her “chippy, tightly wound suck-arse” of a husband, Schuyler Fenwick.

Bankson slides immediately from Thanatos to Eros. “I felt my loneliness bulge out of me like a goiter,” he confesses, “and I wasn’t sure how to hide it from them. . . . Nell and Fen had chased away my thoughts of suicide. But what had they left me with? Fierce desires, a great tide of feeling.” Determined to keep them from heading home, he promises to find Nell and her husband an interesting new tribe to study along the Sepik River — an appropriately “oddball culture” that’s not too violent, not too primitive, and with good art.

“Euphoria” by Lily King. (Handout/Atlantic Monthly)

King keeps us mostly in the mind of this gentleman determined not to betray his romantic attraction, and the story that develops reflects Bankson’s brooding but tightly self-controlled personality. (Privately, Nell describes him as a man who “would have a hard time asking for a light in a pub.”) Unwilling to declare his affection, yet unable to stay away from her, Bankson finds himself serving as an embarrassed referee in his new friends’ marriage: Fen wants him around to distract his wife; Nell wants him around to dampen her husband’s violent moods. So Bankson lingers, insisting that he really, really must be going now, while thinking, “The impulse to touch her and all the life in her was something I had to check regularly.”

It’s a situation shot through with irony: For all their eagerness to toss out the norms of Western marital relations, Nell and Fen are still struggling to play the traditional roles of husband and wife. Even in the jungle, it’s not easy for Nell to lean in. “All the downplaying I must do starts to rub off on me,” she thinks, “so that I don’t even allow myself a few minutes of private pleasure before the squelching kicks in.” Thousands of miles from “civilization,” she’s still receiving lucrative grants and royalties and hundreds of letters from fans, all of which aggravate her bitterly competitive husband.

But some of the novel’s most insightful passages concern the principles of their profession, which they uphold no matter how thwarted by desire and petty jealousy. At their most ambitious, these scientists felt they might “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Nell craves that fleeting moment of euphoria when she first feels she truly understands a place. “We’re always, in everything we do in this world, limited by subjectivity,” she says. “But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if we give it the freedom to unfurl. . . . The key is to disengage yourself from all your ideas about what is ‘natural.’ ”

Bankson’s narration is periodically interrupted by excerpts from Nell’s journal, a mixture of anthropological observations and reflections. It’s here, in these private moments, that we hear her frustrations with Fen, her growing attraction to Bankson and her unbridled aspirations: “I think above all else it is freedom I search for in my work,” she writes, “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.”

Without lending any credence to Derek Freeman’s claim in the early 1980s that Mead misinterpreted Samoan culture, King dramatizes the anthropologist’s challenges in fascinating ways. Beyond the considerable language barrier, there’s the difficulty of encouraging strangers to describe their most intimate feelings and behavior. And how might hiring a sizable percentage of the villagers as servants alter their society? In his most cynical moments, Fen accuses his wife of “discovering” the matriarchal cultures she wishes existed. Even Bankson, so sympathetic to her cause, wonders, “When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis?”

King keeps the novel focused tightly on her three scientists, which makes the glimpses we catch of their New Guinea subjects all the more arresting. We learn about the natives who cut off a finger every time a loved one dies, and in the novel’s eeriest scene, Nell attends a lesbian orgy that corresponds with nothing these scientists have witnessed before. But in general, King seems determined to avoid exoticizing these people, no matter how they may have been regarded in the 1930s. The New Guinea tribespeople remain largely unknown and separate, until the enlightened anthropologists — who fancy that they’re treading so lightly — end up trampling their hosts just as effectively as any other emissaries of Western greed.

Although King has always written coolly about intense emotions, here she captures the amber of one man’s exquisite longing for a woman who changed the way we look at ourselves.

Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.


By Lily King

Atlantic Monthly. 261 pp. $25