In 1933 Margaret Mead and her husband Reo Fortune, both anthropologists, were in flight from a particularly hostile tribe. They were about to give up on New Guinea and return to Australia when they met the English anthropologist, Geoffrey Bateson. Bateson himself was also in a bad way. His two older brothers, the hope of the family, were both dead, one by suicide and one in the First World war. He had just made an unsuccessful suicide attempt and was questioning the whole purpose of his life as an anthropologist. Margaret Mead and her husband had their own problems. She had had great success with her book Coming of Age in Samoa, a vivid account of adolescent life in Samoa, published when she was only twenty-seven years old. She had been married once, had a relationship with Ruth Benedict, a colleague, and had met Fortune on the boat back to America. They had been married for only two years, but already differences were emerging between them and Fortune’s jealousy of her achievements, which sometimes showed itself in violence towards her, was eating away at him.
This is where Lily King’s novel begins. The characters closely based on Margaret Mead et al are called Nell Stone, Fenwick Schuyler and Andrew Bankson. They meet on a boat full of drunken expats and Bankson is immediately drawn to Nell. He notes how ill she seems, how she cannot see now she no longer has her glasses (probably broken by her husband), but mostly he is drawn to her attitude to anthropology.
As well as being drawn to Nell, Bankson is desperate for company. He decides to take them to the Tam, a tribe dominated by strong women. They are sceptical at first, but when they see the island where the Tam live all doubts are gone.
And just then the passage opened up.
The lake was enormous, at least twelve miles across, the water jet black and ringed by green hills. Fen pulled the throttle to idle and we swayed there for a moment. Across the water was a long beach, and mirroring it in the water, twenty yards offshore, a bright white sandbar. Or what I thought was a sand bar until all it once it lifted, broke apart, and thinned into the air.
‘Osprey,’ I said, ‘White osprey.’
It becomes apparent that Nell is diligent and respectful of the women and children she works with (although it is rather irksome that they have the habit of using local people as servants as soon as they become established.) But Fen is different
Fen didn’t want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native. his attraction to anthropology was not to puzzle out the story of humanity. It was not ontological. It was to live without shoes and eat from his hands and fart in public. …His interest lay in experiencing, in doing. Thinking was derivative. Dull. The opposite of living.
The story of this moment in the lives of these three people is fascinating to read. The euphoria comes when they are seeing the structure of the society they are studying, the sacred objects, the different lives of men, women and children. They have one such moment together when they spend a whole night developing a grid of the societies in North, South, East and West and classifying them from peaceful to warlike. Bankson goes on to use this in his future teaching
The story is mainly related from Bankson’s point of view, Nell’s comes from diary entries that Bankson is given. Lily King did a great deal of research for this book and it feels authentic. She takes the story in a different direction from the real story of Margaret Mead. In real life she divorces Fortune and marries Bateson. In King’s story things end badly for her and Fen in a highly believable way.
This was Lily King’s first historical novel and it was listed as one of the New York Times ten best books of 2014. It did leave me with questions about the right of foreigners to shop around for a suitable society to study, interpret and build a career on.
Margaret Mead was an interesting woman with a life packed with incident. She had to endure a great deal of criticism for her views about sexual development and some felt she was naive and duped by her informants. She went on to champion women’s rights and other progressive causes. This book very convincingly captures her in a moment of crisis.
Next I would like to read With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson written by their daughter the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson.