Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fiction | Field Notes on Ritual, Culture, Love

The same wonderful lady that, eons ago, recommended Gloria to my wee 19-year-old self recently recommended to me Lily King's Euphoria, which makes this my Reader Harder Challenge pick for the "recommended to you" category.

This story unfolded much differently than I expected.

It centers around three young anthropologists in the 1930s studying river tribes in New Guinea. Nell Stone is a well-known American woman, controversial thanks to her published reports on the sex lives of tribal children and youth. Her husband is Fen, a capricious Australian with uncertain and unstable motivations for his work. After abandoning their study on a particular aggressive tribe, Nell and Fen cross paths with Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist who has established himself in the area for the past several years. Despite his stability with study, Bankson has been suffering from hauntings of his past—his father's death, a brother's death, another's suicide—and is tempted to end his own life until he meets Nell and Fen.

An agreeable new post of study brings Nell and Fen closer to Bankson along the riverbank. They take up residence amongst the Tam, a female-dominated society with plenty of art and culture to discover. Nell is quick to assimilate into the community, constantly establishing connections and conversations, observing and note-taking on all she learns. Fen, on the other hand, just seems to want to be a member of the Tam, and Nell is frequently frustrated by his lack of record-keeping and purposeful interactions.

Nell and Fen provide the action of the narrative; their perspectives lend a sense of wanderlust to the story as we experience the daily life of an anthropologist in this particular place and time. Bankson, though, provides the emotion and introspection. While he is certainly an observer of experiences, his voice goes below the surface and reflects on meaning and interaction.

The narrative voice jumps frequently chapter to chapter, shifting perspective as mentioned above. What we're left with has me feeling rather puzzled, or maybe disconnected. I found Nell and Fen to be fairly static characters, and though we read much of the story through their immediate experience, I feel quite distant from their emotional one. Bankson is the emotional core of this story, and we sort of only known Nell and Fen, on a personal level, through his recounting of their shared time.

Throughout my reading, I felt there was a wall that the reader could not pass. Partly, it's the use of textual clues, hinting to a future that is already certain, defined; partly, it's the distance we're kept from Nell and Fen, unable to feel the impact of experience. To me, it prevented a full emotional investment in the story. That's not to say, though, it lacks meaning. There is great reflection on motive and perception among individuals and communities. This book is a simple read on the surface but has clearly been carefully crafted. The writing is excellent, and there is certainly poignancy here that gives great dimension to personal histories and cultural varieties.

And sidenote: most synopses of this book describe a "passionate love triangle" or "romantic firestorm" which I think is terribly misleading, because I don't think that's the author's main focus—or point—at all.

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