Early in this exciting novel about cultural anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea, we get a gloss on the title's meaning. Euphoria, Nell Stone tells a friend, is "when you think you've finally got a handle on the place … that moment the place feels entirely yours." Nell, the novel's focal center, modeled somewhat after Margaret Mead, is savvy enough to know this feeling is a delusion: She understands that she will never truly understand. Although she is something of a superstar as the novel opens, her approach to her discipline is full of humility: "The truth you find will always be replaced with someone else's."

The 1920s and 1930s were the Golden Age of anthropological field study. Prompted by scientific curiosity, by war weariness, by "the belief that somewhere on earth there was a better way to live" (Nell's thought), adventurous scholars from Western nations embedded themselves in the societies of native peoples to document how they lived.

"Euphoria," in a wonderfully vivid and perceptive tale, allows us a close look at a group of such anthropologists — and the cultural assumptions that drive them. King shows us that just as the New Guinean tribes differ dramatically in their customs, so, too, do the anthropologists seem to belong to different tribes.

Where Nell, an American, wants to study the natives, her Australian husband, Fen, wants to be one. He is excited by the manly rituals of the Tam tribe and tired of working in the shadow of his illustrious wife. The largest part of the novel is narrated by a third anthropologist, a despairing Englishman, Andrew Bankston, who is overcome by his grief at surviving his brothers and by his general sense of his uselessness in the jungle.

Bankston is attracted to Nell and Fen and, in particular, to Nell's empathetic manner of interacting with the native women and children. Bankston's own approach has been more clinical and remote, fearing that he would be studying "natives toadying to the white man."

Although the anthropological discoveries that the three make are at best murky, King's prose sparkles. Whether writing about the ultraviolent Mumbanyo tribe "beating a death gong" for Nell and Fen and throwing dead babies at them, or describing the Tam tribe's local hero, who has escaped his enslavement in the mines, she captures the reader's imagination and holds on to it. King has done her research. (The Acknowledgements Page lists 34 works.) The upriver experiences of her characters feel thoroughly authentic — fascinating, uncomfortable, always dangerous, sometimes even euphoric.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.