Review: “The People In The Trees” by Hanya Yanagihara

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As a voracious lover of literature, I’m always at some point in time either reading a book or buying a new one to add to the growing pile. The very act of reading is a ritual, one that’s as much a part of my day as brushing my teeth or going to work. As such, sometimes it’s become an increasing rarity for me to discover a book that I not only love but wholeheartedly obsess over. I’m talking the kind of all-consuming passion for a novel that harkens back to my younger days of reading Harry Potter under the blankets with my dad’s work torch lighting the way (and running the battery down – sorry, dad); The sort of enthralling read that leaves you thinking about it for days, weeks and even months after turning the final page. Such instances are infrequent for me, but that only makes their appearances that much more worth savouring.

That was my experience with Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People In The Trees. It was a book, bought on a whim, that had me by the throat from the first page. I thought about it almost constantly when I wasn’t reading it, and before I had even finished it I knew it would become one of my favourite books ever. There is no sentiment I can use to describe my intense feelings towards this book that would ever fully convey it; no hyperbolic statement possible. Buy it now, read this review later.

Inspired by the true story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, The People In The Trees opens with a news story announcing the arrest and subsequent jailing of Nobel Prize winning scientist Dr Norton Perina. In 1950, Perina journeyed to the fictional Micronesian nation of U’ivu as part of an anthropological expedition, and in the process of which discovered a lost tribe of ‘dreamers’ – elderly men and women whose age exceeds the hundreds. Their physical forms remain unchanged from age 60 onwards, yet they become increasingly senile. Perina discovers the source of their longevity – the meat of a rare turtle fed to them during a special ceremony – and his experiments on the subject lead to a Nobel Prize.

That paragraph may seem heavily spoiler-filled, but this is all revealed in the opening pages, as are the revelations that Perina has been charged with sexually abusing one of his many adopted children. Immediately the groundwork is set for Perina to tell his side of the story through a memoir he writes during his time in prison, with editing and footnotes provided by a sympathetic colleague. We as readers know the bare bones of the tale, but how the accused chooses to tell it reveals far more than anticipated.

Yanagihara presents a deftly handled, fascinating and deeply unsettling glimpse into the mind of a genius scientist who seems to possess no moral or emotional compass. His callousness shines through in the earliest descriptions of his childhood, particularly with the way he so casually dehumanises his mother, followed by his time at medical school and on to his first trip to U’ivu. Perina is a sharp witted man, astonishingly intelligent, and almost exclusively cruel.

He is aided in his rose-tinted memories by his sycophantic editor, who readily dismisses the abuse allegations not because of their likelihood but because he sees the imprisonment of such a brilliant mind as the true crime. These footnotes also provide the necessary scientific sources and academic expansion expected of such a piece, such as details on the pharmaceutical companies that swarm to the village after Perina’s discovery, and highlight the ways in which the wider pursuit of knowledge above all costs is what ultimately destroys U’ivu.

The only time Perina gives pause to his selfishness is in his descriptions of the island that helps make him famous. The detail with which Yanagihara creates this dream-like nation is piercingly specific – beautifully expanded upon but always with the language of a scientist. The natives of this Eden-like paradise and their daily lives are painstakingly documented to the point where the reader has no problem believing in a rare turtle whose meat is laden with life lengthening properties. It is in this Eden that another outsider tempts the uncorrupted to gain further knowledge and taste the forbidden fruits.

Perina, of course, is the most knowledgeable person in the story, because he’s the only one with all of the details needed to give the reader what they need to know (and even then they’re controlled by a toadying editor). He’s the snake with the fruit crossed with The Tempest’s Prospero. The People In The Trees is a tale of abuse, told from the point of view of an abuser who uses the tools at his disposal to rid himself of responsibility. He’s a chilling representation of the ways in which our culture exploits the most vulnerable while rewarding those who deal in exploitation.

Equal parts enthralling and unsettling, I’ve never read anything like The People In The Trees before. It’s an ambitious and completely uncompromising piece of work, one that offers a gripping and distressing glimpse into the true depths of moral and intellectual darkness. You need to read this book. If literary perfection exists, this is it.

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