Euphoria by Lily King

To begin with I had the feeling I was really going to enjoy this. There wasn’t going to be any wizardry or groundbreaking technique to this novel. Rather it seemed it would be a riveting story told by an accomplished writer with a passion for her subject and a very easy and poised prose style. Quickly there’s a sense that the real tribes under scrutiny here are men and women. But I felt King could have been a little more subtle and certainly more probing with this anthropological irony. Then it began to seem a very light and breezy read but perhaps a little too light and breezy. I found myself hoping for more depth as the novel progressed, for the sifting down into deeper layers of meaning. Or something more than a love triangle in an exotic location at the advent of a world war which does make you think King wasn’t unaware of the colossal commercial success of The English Patient and Out of Africa – except her writing unfortunately isn’t in the same class as Ondaatje or Blixen. In the first five chapters there could be the suspicion that anthropology is just going to be used as an exotic backdrop for little more than another done-to-death love triangle.
I think there’s an element of everyone in the novel becoming a representative of his/her tribe – whether the tribe is nationality or sex. King is asking questions about the credibility of anthropology as a science since it is all about communication between the observer and the observed – and this is what every good novelist does, starts off asking crucial questions about the themes the novel is to investigate.
I’m liking the subtle use King’s making of the love triangle. It isn’t some cheap amphetamine she’s used to increase the bloodflow of the plot. In fact I think we have little emotion invested in the will-they-won’t-they? question. Rather she’s showing us how infatuation/love/kinship heighten our observational prowess. It’s Bankson’s infatuation that makes his observations of Nell so informed and extends the reach of his sensibility which, in turn, allows him to enter into the spirit of the Kiona, an accomplishment denied to him until his imagination was fired up by his meeting with Nell and Fen. This very much in contrast to the patriarchal Victorian world’s hard-boiled scientific methods of gathering and ordering data.
More than half way through now and I’m still waiting for the euphoria moment when everything falls into place. At times I wonder if my disappointment isn’t perhaps due to a lazy reading of the book on my part because I’m not really getting it while others are clearly getting a much richer reading experience. The research rarely feels rooted into the soil of the novel. For me the Tam still don’t have a vivid identity. I’m not seeing how they spend a typical day. King is more interested in the sensational than the everyday and this, for me, is caricaturing the culture a bit. And i often feel she doesn’t quite have command of her material. This might be due to the obvious problems posed by fictionalising real people. I still have the feeling she wanted to write the English Patient but was beaten to it.
I think King’s constantly heightening interest only to then almost immediately deflate it by dillydallying. I’m not loving the construction of this book. There is much that’s interesting but I just don’t feel she’s making it all run together very well.

I’ve got a theory that if you read this novel in big daily instalments you’ll enjoy it more than if you read say ten pages at every sitting. The former way of reading is perhaps to experience the novel as the sum of its parts; the latter, to experience it as more than the sum of its parts because, in a sense, you’re breezing over some of those parts in your enthusiasm to read on. I’ve decided to use chapter 21 to highlight how King consistently allows the tension line of this novel to go slack. By this late stage the novel should be reaching some kind of crescendo. Instead the opening page is nothing but idle chitchat. Wholly gratuitous gossip about Stalin and WH Auden. What either of these two are doing in this novel is a mystery. Then Fen has yet another snide dig at Nell. Haven’t we already got the point by now? Then there’s the very long winded reading of Helen’s book, though not before a brief discussion about tea which allows Fen to get in another snide remark. All the stuff about Helen’s book feels forced – researched material shoehorned in without much flair or subtlety. Bankson says, “The most intoxicating drug could not have had a stronger effect on me.” But this is a classic example of telling, not showing. The entire section about Helen’s book is prosaic telling, not showing. Once again all dramatic tension has fizzled out of the novel. King restores it at the end of the chapter when she shows how energising is the intellectual collaboration between the three – but, for me, so many chapters in the novel follow this somewhat sloppy pattern.

I would argue many of the themes people have seen and praised in this novel are simply inherent in the material. Isn’t it anthropology itself that invites many of the questions people have praised King for raising? The real question is, did King develop these themes? For me this was essentially an intelligent romantic novel. What most interested King was clearly the love triangle. She was at her best when dealing with the tensions uniting and separating Nell, Fen and Bankson. The best chapters for me were when the various tribes were little more than wallpaper. (It doesn’t surprise me that real anthropologists found her depictions of the Sepik river tribes somewhat patchy and vague.) The real story perhaps was the egotistic male’s jealousy of his female counterpart’s success. The tyranny of patriarchy demanding a supporting role from the female. King offset this with the matriarchal culture of the Tam. This part worked well for me. As did the almost supernatural prophetic mirroring of Bankson and Xambun. Were there deep layers of cultural meaning emerging from the Nell-Fen-Bankson triangle? I’d say nothing we learned isn’t part of accepted knowledge about male/female relations of that time or so-called civilised society’s attitude towards indigenous cultures.

My take on the research was that it was too apparent King kneaded it to suit her needs. I deliberately kept myself ignorant of all background info on the novel while reading it but I sensed almost immediately that all the tribes were opportunistically invented. Clearly King sought to thematically relate the tribes to her story but for me her method was too simplistic and involved distorting realities. The pioneeringly feminist and too good to be true Tam and the sinister patriarchal Mambanyo mirrored the characters of Bankson and Fen in the simplistic superficiality of contrast. Maybe that was okay, maybe it wasn’t. Probably a question of taste. I think the key to how much enjoyment you got out of this novel was the level of emotional investment you had in the love triangle (not the case with, for example, the English patient, where there’s a lot more going on). If you were able to enjoy the anthropology as simply exotic background colour the novel as a whole was probably a more rewarding experience. For me the Kirkus prize had my expectations too high. I’d say Euphoria is good high end commercial fiction and had I read it with that perspective I’d have enjoyed it more.  I also have the suspicion it’ll be one of those novels that could be better as a film because much of what is told in the novel will be shown in a film.

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