Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
This is fiction, not biography, though the characters and their anthropological work are based on Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune, and her third husband Gregory Bateson. The events take place in New Guinea where Mead and both men worked. Fortune had a reputation for being difficult, but to what extent he was really like Fen in his book, I don’t know. The real people’s lives did not turn out like the ones in the book.
As a work of fiction it’s compelling, and builds believably to a high level of drama. The people of New Guinea are given as much fullness and depth as the anthropologists. Though the people being studied remain secondary characters, the author gives a sense of their inner lives and doesn’t treat them as props or background. They play key roles, and the lack of their point of view is true to the experience of the central characters who study them. The anthropologists try, but they never can know what it’s like to be the other culture. The cultures are examined with the openness and respect that Nell, the character based on Mead, and Andrew Bankson, the character based on Bateson, bring to their work. The locations give a rich contrast between the lives of the New Guinea tribes and the lives of Western people. Bankson’s observation on “the stale, cerebral self-conscious wit that bubbled like a frothy mold through every corner of Cambridge” (p. 35) is one example of that contrast. As an academic “at home” in England, he is less at home there in body and spirit than he is in New Guinea.
The author uses a different style for his point of view, for Nell’s journals and the third person sections. Once I got used to the POV shifts this worked well. I never did figure out why she chose to change points of view in the last sentence of a chapter, though, and did it twice. It was startling, drawing attention to a narrative choice rather than the meaning of the story or the story itself. Maybe it was supposed to make the reader think about—I’ll take a guess—how culture is a point of view or about the nature of our expectations for story-telling, but if so, it didn’t work for me and didn’t seem needed. The section about Helen’s book expresses a perspective on culture that was revolutionary at the time this book is set, and presents insights on unique cultural perspectives while moving the plot at the same time.
With beautiful language, strong dialog, a fascinating setting, and complex major and minor characters, this book flowed well and drew me in completely.