A River Runs Through It
By Lily King
Grove Press, 2014
Reviewed by Seana Graham
It’s Christmas Eve, sometime during the 1930s. Two young anthropologists, Schuyler Fenwick and Nell Stone, are returning from the field and are completely unaware of the holiday until they join a boatload of Westerners headed for the government station in Angoram, in territorial New Guinea. They have just spent five months among the Mumbanyo, a tribe along the Yuat River, whom they’ve been attempting to study. The project hasn’t worked out well, and it’s hard to say whether the Mumbanyo, who have seen them off by beating a death gong and hurling something after them that may or may not have been a dead baby, are more eager to see them go than the pair are to leave.
Their plan is to leave New Guinea altogether and try again with an aboriginal tribe in Australia. But another anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, has arrived in Angoram as well. He is a rival in the field and one they respect, and in fact part of the reason they’d ended up with the Mumbanyo was to avoid pushing themselves on to his professional turf. Unbeknownst to them, however, Bankson has recently been suicidal, and, desperate to be more closely associated with two people he sees as kindred spirits,he promptly persuades them to study another tribe called the Tam in the area. Though they will still be a river journey away from him, they’ll be a whole lot closer than they would be in Australia. And so the triangular relationship between them all begins.
It’s no secret that Euphoria is based on the lives of three rather famous anthropologists—the American Margaret Mead, her Kiwi second husband Reo Fortune and the British Gregory Bateson. They were thrown together in a manner similar to King’s characters in 1933. King takes pains to say that although this is her departure point, she soon found the story she wanted to tell diverging considerably from the historical record.Nevertheless, some of the ways she invents these lives raised questions for me, considering some of the turns the story takes. Many fictional characters have their basis in real people, of course. But there is a bit of a sense of having it both ways here, as readers still feel that they are learning about the real groundbreaking anthropologists, no matter what disclaimers are made. In an interview, King has said that that Mead and Bateson’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, has been supportive of the work, understanding that it is fiction and not a portrait of her parents, but I think this avoids the problems inherent in King’s approach a little too easily. I wonder if Reo Fortune’s family has quite the same take on it, considering that he does not come across as well as either Mead or Bateson.
Gregory Bateson taught at U.C. Santa Cruz during the time I was there. I don’t recall meeting him, though I remember his name in the course catalog, but I have friends who did, or who studied with him, including a member of the book group I read this with. Some of us felt that the link acknowledged with this famous trio disturbed our reading of the fictional tale. Interestingly, though, those members who didn’t realize as they read the book that it was based on real people found it a wonderful piece of work, because the fictional story is very good and makes its own kind of sense. So in a way I may be hurting your chances of appreciating the book as the satisfying novel that it has certainly been to many by drawing too much attention to what I consider a problem.
King has obviously done her research on the lives of the trio, and on what the field of anthropology was like at this early stage. But a deeper question opens up in the course of reading the book which has to do with anthropology itself. One of our book group members asked in bemusement and mild vexation, “What were these people doing there, digging around in other people’s lives?” It is a question that perhaps both novelists and anthropologists should contend with.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.