Book #12

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

In 1950, Norton Perina, a young American doctor, joins an anthropological expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumoured lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of jungle-dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a feeling of bereavement after finishing To Paradise this year. The obvious solution to this was to buy The People in the Trees and attempt to satiate my Hanya withdrawals. Although I had a wonderful time, the conclusion is that I will never be content, and my next essential move will be to reread A Little Life.

I found this one to be strikingly unlike its younger siblings, and yet Yanagihara’s beautiful writing skill, although stylistically different, still grabs you by the throat. We begin with a newspaper article - Dr. Norton Perina has been arrested on suspicion of sexual abuse. What follows is Norton’s account of his life, written from prison. This account, written by a man who has not only been imprisoned for a horrific crime, but who has also been subject to accusations, rumours, and shame in relation to his scientific work, is difficult to trust. Couple that with the insertions and extractions of his colleague (and staunch devotee), who has taken it upon himself to edit the memoir, and we’ve got ourselves one hell of an unreliable plot.

The majority of the novel, and indeed, the majority of Norton’s life, is focused on his scientific work - the  discovery of a village in Micronesia where the inhabitants seem to have mastered the secret to eternal life. We see Norton’s thirst for discovery, his unerring action to obtain the life elixir and bring it back to the West. And the most interesting part of this is seeing how humans are treated for science. Yanagihara is asking us to consider our morals, the idea of immortality, and the ethics of Westernising every culture our white arses manage to stumble across. 

The final sections of the novel move away from Norton’s professional unscrupulous standards and focus more on his personal amorality. His child-rearing choices are unsettling, and lead to the climax of the book. Although our finale is clearly set out from the beginning, we are still left shocked and uncomprehending and, in true Yanagihara style, with a number of questions on our own stances, our own morals, and our own understanding of the world.

This is one which will become more and more plentiful with each reread. The story has been woven so intricately and so subtly that I’m already looking forward to experiencing it again.