Abroad by Penelope Lively

Do we see the lives of others through the lenses we create from our own experience?  Anthropologists have struggled with how the observer changes the world of the observed.

imagesListening to the audiobook of The World Between Two Covers, I heard Ann Morgan cite Penelope Lively, one of my favorite authors, as someone who had dealt with this theme in Abroad, a short account of a young couple’s trip to the Continent in search of inspiration.

Ann Morgan notes:

“The danger of demanding authenticity, or “spirit” of a place in a book is that we look for what we expect to see and miss what is there. Instead of allowing the stories of a region to open our minds and read us in new directions, we can become narrow and petty, demanding that regional literature conform to our expectations.  Far from broadening our horizons, we risk shutting ourselves in a hall of mirrors where we see our version of the world reflected back at us ad infinitum.”


Since I had never read Abroad, I downloaded a copy for $3.99 and quickly read the 26 page novella.  The story is witty and humorous, with a definite caution to all of us who think we can learn more about the “culture” through travel.

In Lively’s Abroad, two young British artists decide they need to go Abroad to the Continent to see “landscapes peppered with peasants, wearing proper peasant clothes…All so authentic…In England we didn’t have peasants. Just the rural working class. Farm workers.Not the same.”

The Lively fun never stops in its light ridicule and witty banter:

“…part of the appeal – not knowing what people were talking about…You were on the outside, not involved, just looking on, which is what you were there for…”

When the couple comes across a picturesque country wedding party, they are, at first, happy to lurk nearby to sketch the group.  Of course, they are noticed and the country folk invite them over to enjoy food and wine, and the couple revel in their authentic experience. However,when their car does not start and they are stranded at the farm, their hosts are not willing to extend their hospitality to the couple with no money to fix the car or pay for their keep.   By the end of the novella, the pair are forced to admit ‘You can have enough of authenticity eventually,’ but not before the clever “peasants” have squeezed a week’s worth of unpaid farm labor out of them, and a fresco of the family on the kitchen wall.

Never underestimate the locals.



Euphoria by Lily King

9780802123701_p0_v3_s192x300Perhaps Margaret Mead was as brilliant, dedicated, and observant as Lily King portrays her in the historical fiction – Euphoria.  Perhaps Mead did get under the skin of the local natives and learn their hidden motivations and sexual mores.  In Euphoria, King cleverly infuses some of Mead’s life and work into a story about fictional anthropologist Nell Stone, but Nell is not Margaret Mead.

As with any historical fiction, the lines blur and the author’s poetic license created motivation for me to investigate the real Margaret Mead.  Her name was lumped in my storehouse of knowledge along with Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, and other famous women of science.  I knew of them but not much about them, and I had identified Mead for her groundbreaking fieldwork of coming of age teens in Samoa. Lily King notes in her afterward that her story was inspired by

“…anthropologists Margaret Mead, Rea Fortune, and Gregory Bateson and their few months together in 1933 on the Sepik River in what was then called the Territory of New Guinea.  I have borrowed from the lives and experiences of these three people, but have told a different story.”

In the story, Nell and her Australian husband Fen, meet English anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, in their search for a tribe to observe and study.  Bankson, who has been on the river for years with no results to show for his work and has unsuccessfully attempted suicide, is inspired by Nell’s work ethic and different approach to collecting data.  Fen, Nell’s husband, is jealous of Nell’s success from her first book – a version of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa – and is determined to forge his own authority in the field.  Hints of spousal abuse lurk in the background as well as Nell’s yearning for her former lover, Helen – again based on Mead’s relationship with Ruth Benedict.

The author creates a shaky partnership among the three to include cooperative writing – leading to a Grid mirroring a cultural map created by Mead and  her colleagues – but also competitiveness in their work and their love lives. The intense interaction among the three fuels the story.

The book also has vivid descriptions of native rituals haunting the pages: throwing away the dead bodies of babies, cutting off fingers to respect the dead, transgender dressing…and more – all fascinating and scary. When one of the revered tribesman escapes slavery in the mines and returns to the village, his difficulty in readjusting to the tribe is painful and clear.

The “euphoria” comes from Nell’s description of her research and the moment when she connects and understands: “…when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place … that moment the place feels entirely yours…” King knows to create doubt in Nell’s mind – just as Mead realized an outsider will never really understand the culture.  Later in Mead’s life, criticism of her efforts was based on the possible deception of the natives to lead her to what they wanted her to believe.  Nell, modeled after Margaret Mead, is savvy enough to know this feeling is a delusion.

Since two friends and I had decided to meet to discuss the book, I found myself taking notes, and jotting down phrases I wanted to decipher later.

One phrase still haunts me:

Always in her {Nell’s} mind had been the belief that somewhere on earth there was a better way to live and she would find it.”

The story was not always easy to follow.  Although Andrew Bankson is the principal narrator, King inserts letters and notes from Nell, with her thoughts often reflecting what Bankson had already described.  It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the book, and in the end, it left me with questions to explore – a good thing.  Euphoria is certainly a book to tear apart in the company of friends, and I am looking forward to that.