Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Title: The People in the Trees
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publication Date: August 13, 2013
Genre: Magical Realism, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Rating: ☕☕☕☕☕ (5/5)
Content Warnings: highlight to view {sexual abuse, rape (explicit), moral relativism, colonization, suicide, pedophilia}

BLURB

In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub “The Dreamers,” who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences. (via Goodreads)

THOUGHTS

…gods are for stories and heavens and other realms; they are not to be seen by men. But when encroach on their world, when we see what we are not meant to see, how can anything but disaster follow?

The People in the Trees is a book fashioned into a memoir written by Norton Perina himself (the central character in this story). This book tells the story of how a budding scientist, while on an expedition to observe a remote tribe, almost came close to proving that immortality is possible. This followed his rise to fame and his subsequent fall from grace.

It is widely documented that this book was directly inspired by Daniel Carleton Gajdusek – known for his work in virology and medical anthropology (he was also a Nobel Prize winner) and, in later years, was charged with child molestation as accused by one of his adopted 56 children from the South Pacific. A quick scan of his biography would reveal specific points you can recognize in this book. In an interview with Vogue, Hanya Yanagihara revealed her fascination with the story, musing:

“It’s so easy to affix a one-word description to someone, and it’s so easy for that description to change: if we call someone a genius, and then they become a monster, are they still a genius? How do we assess someone’s greatness: is it what they contribute to society, and is that contribution negated if they also inflict horrible pain on another? Or—as I have often wondered—is it not so binary?”

via Vogue

And I feel that this summarizes the heart of this book. When I reviewed Hanya’s A Little Life, I mentioned how she succeeded in executing her vision. In THIS, I must admit, Hanya Yanagihara managed to triumph once again.

This book touched a lot of things: colonization, ecological disruption due to unwilling modernization, exploitation of native cultures, and it even offered a discourse on scientific practices here and there. But the central theme to this (and personally the thing that bugged me incessantly, at least) would be moral relativism – across cultures, across professions, and across individuals. By the very end, I was accusing Norton of the very things I resentfully excuse tribal rituals. Questions constantly ran through my mind: when and to whom do we apply our moral standards? And can we even ask that question?

“For were not any mistakes I may have made with my children far overruled by the very fact of their existence?

I had a difficult time reading this book even from the beginning – it’s hard to read from the perspective of someone whose values you don’t agree with. It was extremely uncomfortable. And after finishing this, I was deeply unsettled. Hanya Yanagihara managed to worm into my mind and now I’m left confused as heck and questioning my feelings towards characters, events, and intentions. This was an effort to make sense. No, scratch that – the narrator is not even asking you to understand but just states it as it is. Carmela Ciuraru, in her NY Times review, said that it is “almost defiant in its refusal to offer redemption or solace” and I can’t put it any better than that. Norton Perina is a lot of things and he has a lot of flaws – but he remained unapologetic till the very end (case in point: “I did what any scientist would have done“). He was so convinced of his innocence that it bordered on psychopathy. And regardless of what I feel about him, I have to give props in how thorough and how well he (i.e., Hanya Yanagihara as Norton) presented his case.

This book was incredibly atmospheric and is an achievement in travel writing. Norton viewed the world as something to be dissected and studied – almost amoral and unfeeling in his approach. His curiosity as a scientist shone through the pages. At the same time, his initial wonder of being in a foreign place with equally foreign people was delicately recorded. The image of Ivu’ivu, in particular, was so vividly rendered in these pages. Initially, right after finishing this, I contemplated how I’m gonna rate this and ended up settling on 4.5. Why? Because significant chunks of this book (especially in the middle) were dragging that I ended up pausing for a couple of months before going in again. But after a few days of mulling things over, it slowly morphed into this thing that I can’t stop thinking about. And now, I am convinced that each second of it was intentional: that feeling of constantly waiting for something to happen, the patience needed to bear it, and the accompanying period of irritation as well as those brief moments of being done with it all. It was exactly what Norton felt in those grueling first months in the middle of nowhere and also in those early years of experimenting. That feeling was utterly, perfectly captured in this book. It reads as it feels: suffocating, fascinating, disturbing.

Sometimes I would have to take my glasses off simply so the world would smudge and recede for a moment and cease to seem so relentlessly present tense.

Further, this book was frustratingly written in such a realistic manner that it’s hard to determine which was made up and which was not. The footnotes alone hold a story of their own that sometimes I have to step back and remind myself that this is a fictional account of a life of a fictional man. I kept googling and everything just lines up (at least those I tried to search up on) – as if this is just something that was removed or hidden from actual history books and that’s why it’s not there. The People in the Trees is such a unique and extremely inventive book. Great writing, through and through. The way this was written (the tone), formatted, and seemingly edited (what was highlighted and what was left off-page) says so much about Yanagihara’s characters: Perina and even Kubodera. That postscript was a stroke of genius: the way it was included and the way it ended, I’m sure, will haunt readers for a very long time.

Overall

It was an end full of ironies, as such sad and bad endings often are.

What more can I say? Hanya Yanagihara is definitely a writer to watch. I am in awe at how Hanya can write two utterly different books (comparing A Little Life and The People in the Trees). And the fact that this is a debut is even harder to comprehend. I will sure as hell read To Paradise (her next book set to be released on January 2022) even at a cost of another mental and emotional crisis such as this. 😅

RATING

(Yep, I changed the rating from 4.5 to a full 5. It may not matter to others, but for a book that didn’t leave my mind even when I was bonding with my long-time friends? Definitely deserves it.)

QUOTABLE QUOTES

But time, I’ve come to realize, is not for us to fill in such great, blank slabs: we speak of managing time, but it is the opposite – our lives are filled with busyness because those thin chinks of time are all we can truly master.

Life was elsewhere, and it was frightening and vast and mountainous and uncomfortable.

It is astonishing and a little sad to realize how many discoveries, how many advancements, have been delayed for years, for decades, not because the information was unavailable but because of sheer cowardice, fear of being laughed at, of being ostracized by one’s colleagues.

I had the sudden fanciful thought that perhaps the reason the villages lived so long was that no one has ever thought to tell them they couldn’t.

To be a scientist is to learn to live all one’s life with questions that will never be answered, with the knowledge that one was too early or too late, with the anguish of not having been able to guess at the solution that, once presented, seems so obvious that one can only curse oneself for not seeing what one ought to have, if only one had looked in a slightly different direction.

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About the Author

Hanya Yanagihara lives in New York City.

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Auditor by profession and a 'round-the-clock geek 🤓 from the 🇵🇭. I'm a coffee-holic INTJ with an unhealthy obsession with books and stationery. I word-vomit over at Twitter and posts book pics at Instagram: @pagesandcc . I also blog at https://pagesandcoffeecups.com/ .

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