I found out about this book by proofreading one of my library’s booklists. I can’t even remember which one, because I waited forever on hold and now the details are fuzzy. This happens to me a lot – I request something, and then when it comes I think “why did I request this?” but I usually read/listen to it anyway. It was probably on the “Historical Fiction” list.
The book is about anthropologists studying the tribes along the Sepik River in New Guinea in the 1930s. It is loosely based on the real life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, but I didn’t know much about Mead so I had no idea how the love triangle thing was going to work out (and as I found out later, King didn’t actually follow their story, so even if you know how Mead’s story ends, that won’t spoil it). Here’s the scoop: Andrew Bankson (based on the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson) has been studying the Kiona tribe for several years. Depressed after the deaths of both of his brothers, he has lost sight of the purpose of his studies and attempts suicide, which members of his tribe avert. While recovering, he meets Nell Stone (Mead), an American anthropologist who has just written a controversial book about the sex lives of the last tribe she studied, and her Australian husband Fen (Reo Fortune). The couple seems worn and exhausted by their recent experiences with the violent Mumbanyo tribe, and they talk about going to Australia. Lonely Bankson becomes determined to keep them there and talks them into studying the Tam tribe, a few miles up the river from the Kiona, so that he can have them nearby.
A strange relationship develops. Bankson waits a few weeks, then travels to visit the couple. Only a few minutes after he arrives, he falls seriously ill, and Fen and Nell take turns nursing him back to health. It is unclear at this point which of our love triangle is attracted to whom – it’s almost as if Nell and Fen both have become infatuated with Bankson, while Bankson has eyes only for Nell. As Bankson recovers, all three of them delight in working together and appreciating each other’s intellect, and together they come up with “the grid” – a method of arranging groups of people according to their character, which Bankson later publishes in a paper under all three of their names. But there is trouble in Paradise – Nell is obsessed with the seemingly female-dominated culture of the Tam, and as she writes her ideas furiously, is once again threatening to overshadow Fen, who is already jealous of her status as a published author. As Fen’s jealousy simmers, he becomes obsessed with going back to the Mumbanyo to retrieve an artifact that he thinks will make his career – even though it is a sacred object to the tribe. Meanwhile Bankson, his love of anthropology rekindled by Nell’s example, falls so deeply in love with her that he neglects his work with the Kiona to spend most of his time with the Tam. Tension builds until Fen makes a rash decision, which leads to Nell and Bankson making rash decisions, and so many unfortunate events follow that I can’t tell you anything more or I’ll ruin it.
Just read it. If you like love triangles, or stories about people who become immersed in or obsessed with their work, or historical fiction, or anthropology in general, you might enjoy it. I myself was shocked by how colonial these anthropologists seemed – they just parked themselves in the middle of a tribe, and rather than trying to blend in unobtrusively, they seem to have no concerns at all about corrupting their data by influencing the tribes they hope to study. (The Star Trek fan in me was scandalized by their blatant violations of the Prime Directive.) If you are looking for facts about Margaret Mead’s life, however, you might look elsewhere. Some reviewers on Amazon complain about the license King took with the events, and of her factual mistakes (for example, she mentions monkeys in a region where no monkeys are found), but I tend to go with the author’s explanation of the book: “While I have borrowed from the lives and writings of these three, I have told a very different story.” In other words, there’s a reason it’s a novel, people, and not a biography. If you want biography, there is plenty of source material on these three. Speaking of which, I just got Margaret Mead’s autobiography, so I have some reading to do…