Euphoria: up the Sepik River with Margaret Mead

24 November 2014

We have spent many months swooning over the cover of Euphoria by Lily King. (For a real treat, have a look at this high res version.) Initial moment of admiration over, we tried to guess what the picture was of: a parrot's feathers? an artist's paint tray? a painting?

None of the above.

It is, in fact, a close-up photograph of a rainbow eucalyptus tree. Here's one in situ:

Rainbow eucalyptus (c) V Kurland flickr.com
Rainbow eucalyptus © Vadim Kurland / flickr.com

The coloured bark appears when patches of outer bark are shed, leaving a bright green inner bark. When it darkens, it gives way to the blues, purples, oranges and maroons in the picture. It's found commonly in Papua New Guinea, which is where we find ourselves in Euphoria

Three anthropologists – American Nell Stone, her Australian husband Fen, and an Englishman, Andrew Bankson – make their way up the Sepik River. Bankson is studying the Kiona tribe and Fen and Nell are living with the Tam tribe, but the three become increasingly close both in their work and personal relationships, until the firestorm that has been brewing takes hold and rips through their small group and into the tribal communities in which they live.

In the afterword of the novel, Lily explains where the idea came from:

‘While this is a work of fiction, it was initially inspired by a moment described in Jane Howard’s 1984 biography Margaret Mead: A Life and my subsequent reading of anything I could locate about anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson, and their few months together in 1933 on the Sepik River of what was then called the Territory of New Guinea. I have borrowed from the lives and experiences of these three people, but have told a different story.

‘Most of the tribes and villages here are fictional. You cannot find the Tam or the Kiona on a map, though I have used details from the real tribes Mead, Fortune, and Bateson were studying at the time: the Tchambuli (now called the Chambri), the Iatmul, the Mundugumor, and the Arapesh. The book I call Arc of Culture is modelled on Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture.’

>>READ CHAPTER ONE OF EUPHORIA

What else is there to know about Margaret Mead?

Born in 1901, she studied under Franz Boas, father of American anthropology. Her book Coming of Age in Samoa brought her to fame, though contemporary scientists like Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins now disagree with her findings. 

Like Nell Stone in the novel, Margaret Mead was a furiously hard worker. Mason Currey describes her routine in his book Daily Rituals:

‘The renowned cultural anthropologist was always working; indeed, not working seemed to agitate and unsettle her. Once, during a two-week symposium, Mead learned that a certain morning session had been postponed. She was furious. “How dare they?” she asked. “Do they realise what use I could have made of this time? Do they know I get up at five o’clock every morning to write a thousand words before breakfast? Why did nobody have the politeness to tell me this meeting had been rescheduled?” On other occasions, Mead would schedule breakfast dates with young colleagues for 5 :00 a.m. “Empty time stretches forever,” she once said. “I can’t bear it.”’

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