Title: The People in the Trees
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Categories: Adult, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction
Honestly, who wrote the synopsis on the flap of this book?? It literally spoils half the book. Half of the book. So please don’t read the flap of this book before reading. Ok? ok.
From the very first page, The People in the Trees establishes itself as a foreboding and ominous scientific parable cemented with a morally ambiguous narrator at its center,
echoing scifi classics like Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. We first meet our unreliable narrator, Dr. Norton Perina, in jail. He was accused of several accounts of sexual assault and rape including statutory rape. We don’t know anything about him at this point in time except the fact that he is a renowned scientist who discovered Selene’s syndrome–a condition in which a person, upon eating a rare turtle, becomes immortal. Ronald Kubodera, Perina’s acolyte, convinces Perina to write his memoir to try and clear his name. So it’s a story within a story as we hear about Perina’s life and how he came to be where he is now.
This is Yanigihara’s debut novel and it’s a very ambitious one. Its strength lies in its portrayal of Perina. Perina is, though not a particularly original character, a deeply compelling one. Throughout the entirety of the novel, you don’t quite know what to make of him. The book follows him from his young childhood to his time at Harvard Medical School and then to the islands of U’ivu. You vacillate between disgust at him (“I rather enjoyed killing the mice”), confusion at his infatuation with Tallent, another renowned scientist, or sympathy at his loneliness and want to protect the island that he studied in or even understanding at his love for science.
He remains a mystery until the very last
page sentence of this book and his mysteriousness is not really cleared up even with the footnotes from scientific journals and texts provided by Kubodera, an even more unreliable editor as he practically worships Perina. I’m not usually a fan of footnotes; I find them tedious but I think the addition of these footnotes provides a rich history of the people of island Ivu’ivu and a realistic and plausible aspect to Norton’s story so that even when you find something unbelievable the footnotes provide a level of authority that you can’t help but believe.
Much of the book is spent on the island of Ivu’ivu and to the descriptions of the island and the island people where Norton and his colleagues Tallent and Esme study. It’s a little bogged down at times but it’s so believable and they feel like a real people with a culture. As Perina continues to conduct experiments, the scientific community wants to get in on this turtle so they tear down the island to get them. Yanigihara touches on the themes of colonialism and imperialism as well as the different moral standards that the Ivu’vians abide by compared to Western culture. I think these themes could have been explored more and in more surprising ways especially because it was one of the more fascinating aspects of the book but I felt those were kind of glossed over.
The prose is extremely readable though not as precise or controlled or even as fleshed out as it is in A Little Life. This book is also graphic (animal lovers beware) though it is definitely tame when compared to A Little Life. But as I’ve said before with A Little Life, I never thought the violence was contrived or added just to be there. The structure of the novel It’s not a thriller; it’s most definitely a character study on Norton. We don’t even get to find out about his jail accusations until the last fourth of the book where things get really weird..and you’re left wondering is he a psychopath genius? Just another mad scientist? A well-intentioned psychopath? And it left me thinking about it long after I read the final pages.