Monday, September 1, 2014

The two-month mark

Hello stranger ... sorry about the long absence. No excuse really, beyond sheer laziness. I'm so far behind that I don't actually know how many books I owe you, so I'm going to temporarily toss out rule number 1 which is to not skip ahead. Of all the books I've listened to in the past two months, one was a gift from a publisher through the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program and I need to pay my debts to others before working on my own. So, thanks Blackstone Audio for the terrific listen that is Lily King's Euphoria.

It's the 1930s, somewhere in the Melanesian island of New Guinea, and English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has just tried to commit suicide by wading into the river with his pockets full of rocks. The gentle Kiona tribesmen he has been studying rescue him, but he decides to take a little Christmastime R&R in a nearby white settlement. There he meets two other anthropologists who have recently fled a violent, possibly infanticidal/possibly cannibalist tribe, American Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Schuyler Fenwick, known as Fen. Stone has recently published a groundbreaking work of research on tribes in the Solomon Islands and has achieved rock-star fame (much to the disgruntlement of Fen), and Bankson quickly finds himself falling under her charismatic spell.

Bankson helps the pair find a new tribe to study -- the matriarchal Tam -- one that is relatively near to his own and then tries to avoid visiting them too often. He does of course, and during one fevered evening the three of them devise what became the standard (Bankson tells us) of the study of human personality regardless of origins, The Grid (which I believe is a real thing, but I don't know the name of it). But there are cracks in the Stone/Fenwick marriage -- over many things: her fame, their inability to conceive a child, and strongly differing opinions about field work. When Fen takes an ill-advised return trip to their original tribe to "obtain" a valuable artifact, Bankson -- with all his neediness and admiration -- becomes Nell's lover. And that is, of course, the beginning of the end.

As others have mentioned in this book's many (positive) reviews, King story was inspired by the moment in Margaret Mead's life when she and her second husband, Reo Fortune, met the man who would become her third, Gregory Bateson while all three were deep in the New Guinea jungle. And, while the love triangle part is clearly true, King sent her story in a different direction.

A direction I was completely in tune with the entire time I listened to this brief novel. There was nothing I didn't like about this book. King's characters come to vivid life as they bicker, sweat, observe and engage with the tribal peoples with whom they are living, make love, and ultimately look back with loss and regret. The setting is alive with "mosquito rooms" in the anthropologists' houses, a wide variety of insect life and tropical diseases, the cacophony of a tribe welcoming back a long-lost member, the muddy, muggy river, and the point where the anthropologist achieves euphoria -- at two months ... when you've been accepted into the tribes' rhythms of life without losing your observational perspective.

Andrew Bankson tells us most of this story, from late in his life after he attended the 1971 opening of the Hall of Pacific Peoples at the American Museum of Natural History. It is interspersed with excerpts from the diary Nell keeps while in New Guinea, a diary that was handed to him by Nell's mentor following a speech he gave a few years earlier.

There are two wonderful narrators telling the story: the reliable Simon Vance and the new-to-me-but-equally-marvelous Xe Sands (pronounced EX-ee). They are really quite perfect. Vance brings his gravitas tinged with that audible emotion that he does so well to the suicidally lonely Bankson. You can hear the excitement and passion that develops in Vance's voice once he meets and falls in love with Nell. Sands reads Nell's diary entries with her pleasant husky, slightly nasal voice that sounds (in a good way) so tired, as if she's barely holding it together. When Nell writes about a breakthrough or a good session with the women or children, Sands' voice becomes livelier; we know what Nell lives for.

Both narrators do a fine job "reading" each other as well as the boorish Australian Fen, and the accents of the tribal peoples are distinct without being caricatures of indigenous speakers. Their pacing is impeccable, with natural pauses and variations for dialogue and descriptions.

As often happens, an encounter with a great story leads to thinking about a variety of things, i.e., what do I know about Margaret Mead? When I visited New York as a college student I stayed with a friend with an apartment nearby the Museum. This friend told me that Mead's office was in the building's turret on the corner of 79th and Columbus (?) and she is forever there burning the midnight oil in my imagination.

[This photo of Fortune, Mead and Bateson is from 1933 and was retrieved from the Library of Congress.]

Euphoria by Lily King
Narrated by Xe Sands and Simon Vance
Blackstone Audio, 2014. 6:53

1 comment:

Xe Sands said...

Thanks so much for your thoughtful and lovely review! I'm so glad that you enjoyed both the book and joint narration...what an amazing story this is, one that stayed with me long after I finished working on it.