1931 Papua, New Guinea, is the site of King’s exotic novel of three anthropologists, the female protagonist modeled after Margaret Mead. On the cusp of returning to Australia after a grueling experience with the Mumbanyo, a warlike tribe on the Sepik River, American Nell Stone and her Australian husband, Schuyler “Fen” Fenwick, encounter anthropologist Andrew Bankson. Englishman Bankson has studied the Kiona tribe on the river for several years, isolation rendering him desperate for company and conversation with his peers. Having considered suicide in his darkest hours while pondering the deaths of his two brothers, Bankson finds salvation in the prospect of the two new friends he escorts to another tribe on the river that they might study—the Tam.
An artistic, female-dominated culture, the Tam appear the perfect fit for the weary newcomers. Nell has already published and is gaining notoriety for her work; her husband chafes at his lack of status, more enamored of action than study: “Fen didn’t want to study the natives; he wanted to be a native.” Nell, on the other hand, has a more emotional approach to her work with the natives than the Englishman, worried that Bankson’s analytical bent might blind him to the full experience of anthropology: “If I didn’t believe they shared my humanity entirely I wouldn’t be here. I’m not interested in zoology.” She encourages him to become part of the tribal culture, to cultivate acquaintances with the natives.
In poor health and in need of rest, the woman Bankson first encounters is in sharp contrast to her roughly handsome husband. Bankson is the lanky outsider who oddly completes the trio as they engage in passionate intellectual discussions that stimulate them all yet infuse the relationships with a frisson of discomfort born of nascent romance and its conspirator, jealousy. While Nell and Andrew are well matched intellectually and in their sense of mission in New Guinea, the more volatile Fen is unpredictable, grown uncommonly secretive as he plans to recover a precious artifact from the Mumbanyo tribe. In this endeavor, Fen cultivates Xambun, a Tam recently returned from the gold mines, the young man’s innocence forever tarnished by the harsh experiences he has endured outside the tribe.
Bankson’s attachment to Nell is obvious, even tolerable to Fen until he senses an emotional threat to the marriage more powerful than physical attraction. While their work is the cornerstone of the novel, the steady drumbeat of awakened sexuality gradually unravels the trio as a tragic—and entirely avoidable—event sends them fleeing to the security of civilization. Once that delicate thread is snapped, Bankson is once more relegated to single man accompanying a married couple, albeit with a complicated history. The light that shines on a troubled couple, Bankson’s purity of intention, even while shadowed by desire for another man’s wife, parallels the simplicity of a world Europeans feel compelled to dissect and study, intruding with an insatiable curiosity, carrying away priceless cultural artifacts and ways of inhabiting the world like scavengers arguing over booty.
The contrast between the native cultures and the anthropologists who study them creates a template for disaster, whether from the attacks of unfriendly tribes or the shattered innocence of others unaware of the dangers delivered by strangers to their shores. In their quest to understand the natural world, some of these adventurers lived among them with grace and respect, others only with an eye to profit. King inserts a married couple disenchanted with their union into the world of a lonely Englishman whose only desire is to belong. The result is inevitable, three at odds with nature’s pairing, but the moments of joy between Nell and Andrew, two well-matched souls, are illuminated as well in Nell’s description of euphoria as “the moment the place is entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.”