Anthropologist Nell (pretty obviously based on the character of Margaret Mead) studies a tribe in New Guinea where the women have achieved a remarkable level of equality in the running of their lives and the tribe’s life and even in sex to the point of having occasional women-only orgies (not that the men don’t benefit thereby). Her husband Fen, also an anthropologist and burning with envy over Nell’s bestseller book written about a previous study, naturally poo-poo’s all of her findings and then conceives the excellent notion to steal an artifact from a neighboring and much more warlike tribe. This endangers his life, her life, the life of their visiting friend and fellow anthropologist Andrew, not to mention the lives of their entire host tribe.
But Nell stays. I know too many women like Nell, we all know too many women like Nell, who obstinately refuse to look directly at the mirror being held in front of them to see clearly the life they are living. Here, even Nell’s discovery of a primitive Guinean tribe which has achieved virtual gender equality isn’t enough to show her how much better, not to mention safer, their women’s lives are than her own. It is left to one of the tribal members to warn Andrew, “He [Fen] will break her. And he has already, and he will again, but goddammit! Why is she so willfully blind to the risk? Especially when an object lesson is staring her directly in the face? Is it because they’re brown and she’s white and they’re savages and she’s civilized and so ipso facto they cannot possibly have anything to teach her? Stupid, stupid, stupid. She draws no parallels, and her a scientist. Fen is a scientist, too, but ambition and jealousy and laziness and pretty much sheer assholery have equally blinded him to his own realities. Nell’s right when she says that Fen doesn’t want to study the Wokup, he wants to become one. If ever a guy deserved to be killed and eaten and have his head shrunk, Fen was him.
This book rang several different bells hard with me, domestic abuse, professional jealousy, primitive society versus civilized society, the subjective nature of the study of anthropology. Heisenberg was so right, anthropologists cannot help but change the living, breathing entities they choose to observe, because the only way to observe them is to interact with them, and that changes them.
It doesn’t help when you steal from them, either. A great book for a book club. Recommended.