Lily King Writes Euphoria and Dread on the Kiona River


But I don’t trust a crowds – hundreds of people together without cognition and only the basest impulses: food, drink, sex. Fen claims that if you just let go of your brain, find another brain, the group brain, the collective brain, and that it is an exhilarating form of human connection that we have lost in our embrace of the individual except when we go to war. Which is exactly my point.

–Lily King, Euphoria

Lily King‘s Euphoria didn’t catch my eye until it made that treasured list of the New York Times’ Top Ten Books of 2014. When I’m reading book summaries, I usually turn away from love triangle themes. Or romance themes in general. But so many of my favorite books are packaged as love stories, and are then actually full of mystery and intrigue, love more lost than found: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Kate Walbert’s The Gardens of Kyoto. Euphoria falls into this second group, as this is less a book of romantic longing than one of human need and human obsession, in all their brilliance and ugliness.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead explored a New Guinea river in the 1930’s with her second husband. On this trip, she met the anthropologist who would end up as her third husband. King explains in an interview:

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.

Thus, Lily King wrote Euphoria, a fictionalized account of that love triangle. Margaret Mead becomes Nell Stone, animated, energetic, and ever inspired by the tribes around her. Her second husband Reo Fortune becomes Fen, a crude and unfocused man obviously unworthy of Stone. They come upon Bankson, the equivalent of Mead’s third husband Bateson. He’s desperately lonely, haunted by the death of his brothers, exhausted by living amongst foreigners. He’s tried to drown himself in the river, only to have a local tribe fish him out, encouraging him not to swim with stones in his pockets.

Bankson needs these newcomers, he clings to them for company but at the same time fears spooking them with his obvious loneliness. He invites them to join him in what is considered his territory of study, the Kiona River, and offers to find them a tribe of their own. While Fen drinks and sleeps and runs off with the native men, Bankson and Nell begin to have animated discussions. They talk the way people who have had too much coffee talk, sharing childhood secrets and ideas about their work. They leave Fen far behind in their brilliant buzzing halo of connection.

But Fen has a plan of his own, and Bankson, alternating his own narration with Nell’s journal entries, wishes he had seen it all coming. Just the right amount of foreshadowing added to Bankson’s wistful tone for times past make this love triangle read like a mystery. I read furiously, enjoying King’s heady, rich writing and equally wanting and not wanting to reach the unpleasant end I knew must lay ahead.

Euphoria on’

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