Looking for a summer read about a strong, ambitious, smart-as-a-whip American woman whose husband is a bit of a loose cannon? With all due respect to Hillary Clinton, that book could be Lily King’s thrilling new novel, Euphoria.
The novel, King’s fourth, is a fictional reimagining of an early 1930s love triangle involving three prominent anthropologists: Margaret Mead; her second husband, the New Zealander Reo Fortune; and Mead’s third husband (and great love of her life), Englishman Gregory Bateson. In King’s retelling of their story, Nell Stone, newly famous (and infamous) in the U.S. for her notorious bestseller about childhood sexual behavior in the Solomon Islands, and her husband, Schuyler Fenwick (known as Fen), have just fled the violent, cannibalistically-inclined tribe they’ve been studying in New Guinea. They are preparing to leave for Australia when they run into Andrew Bankson, who’s conducting his own research on a nearby tribe. Bankson, lonely and desperate for company, persuades the couple to go up the Sepik River with him in search of a new tribe to study. They find one in the Tam people. As Nell immerses herself in what she sees as a female-centric society, Fen, secretive, acerbic and jealous of his wife’s success, plots a disastrous mission to recover a large flute with markings that he glimpsed while studying the earlier tribe. Meanwhile, Bankson’s presence in their lives sparks an intellectual fervor among all three of them, and a fervor of a different kind between Nell and Bankson. With its intrigue, romance and a true shocker of an ending, this novel is definitely what you’d call a page-turner.
To get a better idea of the real-life figures who inspired the story, DuJour spoke with King about her newest novel.
What an ingenious idea for a novel. How did you come up with it?
I happened to pick up a copy of Jane Howard’s biography of Margaret Mead and got to the part where Mead, Fortune and Bateson were up the Sepik River. I read about their wild love triangle and thought, now that would make a great novel. I never imagined that I would be the one to write that novel—it’s very different from my earlier books—but I couldn’t let go of the idea. And I was terrified the whole time.
In an early passage, Nell tells Bankson, “[There’s a] moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion—you’ve only been there eight weeks—and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.” Did you get that feeling while writing this novel?
I think this happens to many people who undertake a long project. At first it’s really daunting, but then there’s that moment when you’re a little bit in you realize that you can do it. But it’s a complete delusion! Four weeks later, you’re in despair all over again. But with this novel, there was never a moment when I felt that delusional euphoria. I was daunted the whole time. I’m still amazed that the book has been published and that I’m having this conversation.
There are so many things I admire in this book, but I was especially blown away by how adeptly you capture the way that intellectual engagement can morph into sexual attraction. For me, this novel is first and foremost a grown-up love story.
You’ve hit on what interested me most about the Mead-Bateson attraction, which was the intellectual fire between them. But that’s also the thing I was least sure I could create between Nell and Bankson. I’d never written a real love story before, and to describe a cerebral passion seemed almost an impossible task.
Another of the book’s virtues is the extraordinary verisimilitude you manage in your depiction of the Tam culture. It seems utterly believable and real, even though you invented it, yes?
Well, yes and no. The tribe is definitely fictional, but many of the details are taken from the three actual tribes of the middle Sepik that Margaret Mead worked with when she was there in 1933. I read as much as I could about those tribes.
The first-person narration is from Bankson’s perspective, with entries from Nell’s journal interspersed. How did you decide on that technique?
That took a long time to figure out. Initially it was going to be from Nell’s perspective. Then I tried all three perspectives. I was halfway through a second draft when I realized this was Bankson’s story and I’d wanted to tell it from his point of view all along. Also, I simply knew too much about the real Margaret Mead. Her personality was so strong, so larger-than-life, that it was almost overwhelming. And I didn’t click with her as much as I did with Bateson—with his vulnerability and melancholy and his ability to be scared of failure. She was just such a powerhouse, a classic Type A.
Did you find it difficult to write from a male point-of-view?
In truth, I didn’t give it much thought. I was more worried about getting the English thing right. When you’re stepping out of yourself and into a character, whether that character is male or female is not tremendously significant. You just want to be sure you’re creating a whole person.
And what about the journal entries in Nell’s voice?
I based the journal on Mead’s letters during that time to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who’d been her mentor and also, as Mead openly admitted, her lover. It’s funny because just after meeting Bateson, Mead wrote to Benedict, ‘I don’t think there’s going to be any gunpowder in the situation.’ Of course, in the next letter—all the gunpowder!