Author: Lily King
Paperback: 288 pages
My Ambien-aided/inhibited analysis:
Set against the lush tropical landscape of 1930s New Guinea, the novel charts British anthropologist Bankston’s fascination with his married colleagues Nell and Fen. This intelligent and provocative work of historical fiction borrows from and, in its table-turning way, studies the personal and professional lives of revolutionary anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson during their time spent among the native tribes of New Guinea. Embedded with individual tribes along the Sepik River, these three have created their own little universe, far removed from the Western world and unbound by civilized conventions.
The novel focuses on the search for understanding, for a sense of order, order that doesn’t seem to exist in the chaotic and uncertain “modern” world they left behind. A world plagued by war and economic doubt and inexplicable pain. Their entire life’s work is an attempt to understand another culture from the outside, like solving a puzzle without knowing if you have all the pieces. “But there’s always that one last piece to shove into place, even if it’s the wrong shape entirely.” (p. 19) They observe the world around them, assign meaning to the language and rituals of the natives, yet remain unable to look inward and understand the indirect paths (not unlike the circuitous waters of the Sepik) their own lives have taken.
How does one give shape to shared circumstances and experiences? How well do you ever really know another person, their wants and desires, their fortunes and failings? Are we all just shoving pieces into place? And what does it mean to be known at your core? How does that recognition shape you? “She tried not to think about the villages they were passing…all the people she was missing, the tribes she would never know and words she would never hear, the worry that they might right now be passing the one people she was meant to study, a people whose genius she would unlock, and who would unlock hers, a people who had a way of life that made sense to her.” (p. 8) As a scientist, Nell is tempted by the idea that there is something else out there, something being passed over, passing her by, something unique and intended just for her. And if that is the case, she can never stop looking. The characters’ studies of the tribes of New Guinea mirrors their search for meaning, and, for the first time, the only reflection they see is their own.
“She felt she knew his story already…But she was aware that the story you think you know is never the real one. She wanted his real one.” (p. 159) Like Nell, we may think we already know this story of love and lust, of jealousy and obsessive egotism. Three passionate, young anthropologists ensnared in a love triangle, turned on by each other’s minds and scientific processes. But, over the course of these pages, there is so much more to uncover.
My dog-eared and highlighted half-finished copy was absentmindedly left in my seatback pocket at the beginning of the trip. Loving what I read so far, and unable to find an English-language copy abroad, I promptly ordered one to have waiting upon my homecoming. I euphorically devoured it the next day, unwilling to admit the vacation was over, prolonging the inevitable return to reality.