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Book Review: Travel through New Guinea in “Euphoria”

To most, the field of anthropology might not be the most exciting topic to read about. Still, as a former anthropology student, anything on the field sparks glee in me. When I discovered Lily King's part-love story, part-field study "Euphoria," my nerdy heart burst from joy.

Inspired by real-life anthropologists–Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson on the Sepik River of New Guinea–King uses this moment as a starting point then drastically diverges into a tragic love triangle. We meet Nell and Fen, a couple in the field leaving an aggressive, fictional tribe known for infanticide after five months.

They meet Fen's academic rival, Bankson, who just survived a suicide attempt during a party. His loneliness prompts him to convince the couple to continue their fieldwork in the area and find a new tribe to study. The couple immerses themselves in the fictional Tam up the river from Bankson.

With every development in their fieldwork, Nell and Bankson's friendship grows and flourishes into a star-crossed love affair. Meanwhile, Fen's fanatical ideas drive him to make a tragic mistake that will stain their lives forever.

King is known for her character-driven novels, and "Euphoria" is no exception. The level nuance for each character makes it read a biography rather than a work of fiction. Each protagonist's arc reveals how wondrous yet insidious human beings can become if given just enough pressure. Although much of the novel is narrated by Bankson, with Nell's journal entries scattered throughout, King draws each anthropologist's character arcs into full circles by the last chapter.

The growing tensions fueled by Nell's success and Fen's envy fan the flames of suspense–on top of Bankson and Nell's sneaking around. "Euphoria" doesn't hold the same amount of tension and drama as a historical thriller. Still, King's subtle foreshadowings will have you on the edge of your seat and clutching your pearls by the end.

Each protagonist represents a foil of anthropology–both when the novel is set and now. Nell's optimism and practice of cultural relativity (a central principle within anthropology) is a tenet of present-day fieldwork and analysis within the field. Bankson's difficulty with his tribe and reluctance toward fieldwork is an unfortunate side effect of over-saturation and poor fieldwork tactics of the past. Fen's greed and white savior complex accurately portray early anthropological work and theories. Unfortunately, these traits still persist in modern anthropology.

Throughout "Euphoria," the comments and observations made by the anthropologists aren't overdramatized–similar commentary from the real-life anthropologists' King can be found in their own studies. King also comments on the theft of cultural artifacts for museum displays and the government-backed genocide tribes in New Guinea (and other areas of the world) have experienced as a result of the social science.

An illuminating observation on humankind and the field of anthropology, "Euphoria" will not disappoint.

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