Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel was quietly published in 2014 under the noses of mainstream review blogs and book-sharing sites. A handful of these reviews were all praises for the book, calling the author ‘a brave, new writer’. But it was only after I had actually read “The People In The Trees” that I feel it is the reader who is more courageous.
It’s a tough book to read let alone write a review for. But the story is simple enough to set: It’s 1957 and a young doctor, our protagonist Dr. Norton Perina, joins two other anthropologists to a remote island in the South Pacific to find a tribe that they say, exhibit traits of immortality.
In the spirit of science and discovery, Yanigara provides wonderful details to put the reader in the boots of a field researcher, experiencing the natural world for the first time. Our researchers trek through sprawling dense jungles, eat moving fruits that bear butterflies, and soak a kind of true dampness that one can’t quite shake off chapter after chapter. In irritation rather than awe, Perina writes in his field journal, “Why does this forsaken jungle not behave in the laws of nature?”
They finally reach the elusive tribe and witness more than what they set out to discover. One: the tribe doesn’t only live longer than their expected mortality rate of 57 years old, but exceed it by at least threefold – an effect of eating a now-extinct turtle, the opa’ivu’eke. And two: they bear witness to shocking tribal customs – in particular, a rape scene to celebrate a boy’s coming of age. The scenes are tough to swallow and the whole experience stirs up a maddening tension and conflict within the young Perina.
The discovery of the opa’ivu’eke eventually lands the young doctor a Nobel prize, but not without repercussions to the island’s economy and ecosystem; pharmaceutical companies start flying in to do their own research and the island goes to sh*t. Whether this prompts Perina to adopt 47 children in the next few years, raises a flag.
And this is where we find ourselves in the beginning of the novel: a boy Dr. Perina has adopted has accused the Nobel winner of pedophilia. This is how the book starts. What follows is a tell-all memoir from Perina – from childhood to discovery to post-Nobel—in an attempt to restore the old man’s reputation in the community.
Perina’s inner workings and voice of reason is deftly illustrated thanks to Yanigahara’s superb style. The character’s distastes, intelligence, sexism, and human flaws – for there are many – is a test of strength for a reader. Because what you get is a forced serving of justifications from an intellectual anti-protagonist. The kind you’d like to hate.
The question that lingers after reading the book isn’t whether the Nobel-prized winning doctor raped his son, though the book does provide an answer in the end [“It doesn’t matter whether he did it; he is one of this generation’s greatest minds”, writes his research assistant in the introduction”]. Nor is it a question of what could happen to a boy for him to turn into a great, but evil man. The question for me at least is why the hell does this book make me feel like I was an accomplice to a murder?
Very few stories have the power to drain the reader and render him helpless and confused (#Hanyare time indeed). And whether you love it, hate it, think it starts slow or ends with a satisfactory payoff, one cannot deny that Yanigahara is a talented and powerful writer. One whom I look forward to reading more of, ideally in between concoctions of happier, less suspenseful books.
In the late 90’s, Fran was in her lesser twenties. She is “less twenty” forever and even more so depending on time zones.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not expressly reflect the views of Fully Booked. That said, we love our authors anyway.]