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.
This book should begin with a caution: those who are uncomfortable with moral relativism and who prefer to view the world in black-and-white should not take one step further. The People of the Trees is rife with moral ambiguity throughout, which makes it a particularly mesmerizing and mind-challenging debut.
A short Google search reveals that the book was inspired on real Nobel laureate Carleton Gajdusek. The book purports to be the memoir of celebrated scientist Norton Perina, edited by his colleague and admirer Ronald Kubodera, after Dr. Perina is jailed for the molestation of one of his many adopted children.
What we get is the compelling back story, as told by an unreliable narrator. Norton Perina travels to a Micronesian island, called Ivu’ivu, where an amazing discovery is made: this primitive culture contains humans who have been alive for hundreds of years, far exceeding the natural lifespan. Although their bodies are preserved, their minds deteriorate. The import of this discovery – dubbed Selene syndrome – has vast implications for Perina’s career and reputation.
The questions that arise are vastly titillating: what happens when man aspires to be a god? When we encroach on the world of the gods, when we see what we are not meant to see, how can anything but disaster follow? Or to be even more direct: what price do we place on progress? What are we willing to sacrifice and forgive?
There is more to contemplate: how do we view a man with a great mind who is not so great in his personal life? Is he a legend or a monster? Should one, like Faust, sell his very soul for immortality? Does the very quest for the forbidden turn us into something less-than-human?
In creating a realistic novel, Hanya Yanagihara drives readers from their comfort zones. There are some very disturbing scenes of man’s inhumanity to man…and man’s inhumanity to the animal kingdom that trusts him. There are hints of misogyny and outright examples of colonialism. The book is meant to shake us out of complacency and is not meant for readers who are seeking “feel good” narratives.
If there is one problem with the book, it’s the shift in tone as the book progresses. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the professional Perina and the increasingly personal glimpses into Perina’s amorality. That being said, there is bridge that connects and solidly addresses the discrepancy between scientific progress and ethics. This is a far more transformative and fully-realized novel than, say, Anne Patchett’s State of Wonder, which tackles some of the same themes. It’s a devastating look into depravity and darkness in the name of science…for those courageous readers who are willing to take that rewarding journey.
Had I written this review moments after reading the final words, I might have given the book 3 stars or maybe even 2. The ending, while not entirely unexpected, managed to leave me shocked and stupefied. At first I was angered by the whole thing, then I was perplexed, then I started re-reading certain chapters. Only then did I realize just how smartly woven this yarn is spun. In hindsight, it's actually quite miraculous how Yanagihara managed to tie together the varying storylines.
I will warn readers that this is not necessarily an "easy" read. There are peaks and valleys and sometimes, notably at the beginning, it is a little boring. Don't skim over the boring parts, however, because later they will become the most interesting. Also, don't you dare skim the footnotes. They take on an entire story of their own and contain the most memorable moments of clever writing.
Once Norton arrives on the mysterious island, know that things really pick up. The descriptions of the plant life, animals and natives are exquisite and paint extraordinarily vivid images of a rich, fantastical world. This part the book is as edge-of-your-seat adventurous as Jurassic Park, though in a very different way.
The cast of characters is fairly small, but well-developed if Norton thinks them worth developing. Everything is seen through Norton's eyes, and in the end, it's important to remember that.
OVERALL: While I don't know that this book is destined to become a "classic" it is layered enough and smart enough that I would like to take a literature course on it. Even as I re-read a chapter here and there, I start to see some of the hidden brilliance that was scattered throughout. For that, I have to give it 5 stars, even when my initial reaction was shock and disappointment. If you're looking for a book that will haunt you and leave you thinking about it years, The People in the Trees will do it.
Sometimes, something can be masterfully done and still be pointless.
McDonald's franchises can be inside beautiful buildings. Abstract art can be...in existence. And a story like this one, the millionth book about a male unreliable narrator doing horrible things, can be excellent.
But why does it matter?
The fries will still taste the same (good for a few minutes and then not even food after that), I will still not understand art, and this story will still have nothing to add.
Since there has BEEN a canon to literary about, there have been books about men who are unreliable and bad. The writing style can differ, the evils that the men commit can vary, but fundamentally they are saying and doing the same thing.
So even this great author adding to that population still doesn't actually add anything. Because they're all the same.
Does that make sense?
Bottom line: I'm not angry, I'm disappointed.
Also, the abstract art part was a joke. That one's on me.
I mean it about the fries, though.
this is a very brilliant book that i did not care for much at all.
review to come / 3ish stars
----------------- currently-reading updates
let's try this again
i have to put this on hold, because i am currently about as likely to finish a 500 page book as i am to scale mount everest.
----------------- tbr review
reading another book by the author of a little life as a cry for help
'life was elsewhere, and it was frightening and vast and mountainous and uncomfortable.'
HYs writing is mesmerising. i dont know how else to describe it. her words are intelligently intricate, while understatedly beautiful. its the same writing that i fell in love with in ‘a little life.’ while not as soul destroying as ALL, this is still an emotionally compelling novel.
the first pages of the book tell you everything you will read - its lays out the entire plot before you. there are no surprises, no mysteries. instead, this story is an act of humanisation. its to understand a character, to show that the world isnt always black and white, to comprehend intentions rather than actions.
HY has just placed herself on my ‘authors whose grocery lists i would read’ list. i am so captivated by her writing and high-quality storytelling abilities.
With The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara has no doubt secured her place in my list of 'favorite authors.' Not only are her stories blisteringly original and masterfully written, but they point out so many things that make us human with conviction and honesty. When I read her second novel A Little Life, I was appalled and yet incredibly moved by the dark, disturbing tale she wove. And with The People in the Trees, her debut novel--and a powerhouse one at that--I am convinced that Yanagihara has staying power and is quite possibly the only writer I know who can make you enjoy so immensely stories about such troubled people.
Norton Perina, Nobel Prize winning scientist and accused pedophile (don't worry, all this is covered within the first dozen pages or so of the novel), is writing his memoir from prison. His manuscript is edited and annotated by a friend and fellow scientist. And throughout the story we get his interjections, all which seem so incredibly well-researched and real, that truly make the novel come to life. Perina travels to a Micronesian island where he discovers a lost tribe that, through the eating of an indigenous turtle's flesh, are able to prolong their lives for three to six times the average human lifespan. Tales of his incredible discoveries and adoption of dozens of the islanders' children are strung throughout the narrative. It is written so expertly, with tension and release at the perfect moments, that you are never left bored. Even at almost 500 pages, I inhaled this book. Truly gripping until the very last sentence--and I mean the very last one.
That's all I will say because a huge treat of this book is discovering it for yourself. But good luck to Yanagihara who has to follow up two of the best books I've read in 2015--this and A Little Life--and possibly in my life. I truly can't wait to see what she does next. 4.5 stars
There was something so wrong about this book. Reading it was like some sort of slow, pervy foreplay to the final #shockingnotshocking pages. I think I hated this book. I hated it but was simultaneously impressed with it.
Spoiler territory below (You be the judge though because it's similar to Lars Von Trier's end-of-the-world film Melancholia, where the opening scene is ...the end of the world. Similarly, all that is "revealed" in Yanagihara's story is written in her first few pages).
Newspaper clippings mark the beginning of The People In the Trees and promise a story of intrigue, adventure and high drama. We learn the following: A scientist, Dr. Norton Perina, embarks on a journey to the remote desert island Ivu'ivu and uncovers a lost tribe that doesn't appear to age. While there, Perina discovers the secret of extending a human lifespan: a rare turtle's blood. Back in America, Perina rises to fame when he publishes his studies, but ultimately, faces 1) disapproval from his colleagues who say he has ruined the island (and a species), and 2) criticism from the scientific community due detrimental side effects of ingesting the blood. Perina returns to the island multiple times over the years--racked with guilt, to make amends, to find peace, you name it--each time, adopting more of the island's children--up to 40. ...one of which ultimately accuses him of sexual abuse.
...This is all covered in the first few pages via the clippings. The actual narrative is in the form of Perina's memoirs, edited by Perina's colleague, Dr. Kubodera (it's clear from the onset that Kubodera is one of Perina's few remaining friends, most of whom desert him once the assault charges are publicized). Kubodera, being the non-judgmental chap he is, volunteers to review Perina's memoirs while he's killing time in the slammer. He also takes the liberty of adding footnotes to Perina's story where he deems necessary. As the novel progresses, the footnotes become more and more significant, where--in Kubodera's methodical, systematic prose--he glosses over a suicide, what becomes of the natives of the island... It's all very fitting that the last few pages of the novel are a footnote.
Despite the initial strong hook, I was ultimately disappointed by how dull certain sections were once I was actually in them: When Perina is in medical school, I couldn't wait for him to get to Ivu'ivu, when we get to the island, I couldn't wait for him to discover the people, when he discovers the people, I couldn't wait for him to discover the turtles. And so on and so on.
Then there's the subject matter. The story is really fucking challenging in terms of content! What is Yanagihara ultimately even trying to say? There are themes of colonialism, superiority, abuse, justification, the neverending quest, inaccessibility. But in the end, it's literally a story about rape. The rape of a people, the rape of a land, the rape of nature. The ugliness and assertiveness of man. The consequences.
I can't just crap all over Yanagihara's book. This is the lady that gifted us A Little Life. Her prose dazzle. When we make it to the jungle, it's a menacing, claustrophobic landscape: I walked fifteen minutes to the west of the camp and then took a right at a particularly vicious-looking orchid, whose urinous blooms spat out two long, spiraling stamens the color of fresh blood. The narration--removed, exact, straightforward--is spot on for a scientist's memoirs, and impressed me all the more due to its 180 degree divergence from A Little Life.
Some might say that Perina (and Kubodera) were unreliable narrators, but I disagree. One has all the information needed from the get-go to see who both characters are. I liken Perina to Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley--you just bloody know something's off.
A challenging read: at times due to style, but 100 percent in terms of subject matter.
This was definitely an interesting and unsettling book. I wouldn't say that a lot of what happened necessarily shocked me due to the characterisation of the main character. Since we are inside Norton's head, as a reader you are almost inclined to sympathise with him, but he is so unlikeable and I didn't agree with many of his actions. But his story was just so captivating and intriguing.
When I’m going to review a book, I don’t read other reviews, so that they don’t color my opinion. I do read what the publisher or editor sends out, and what the book cover synopsis states about the author and story. But in this case I wish I had read something more, so that I could have been cautioned about what this story was really about. I thought I was getting an adventure story about a young doctor and an anthropologist, who discover a lost tribe in the jungles of an island; based on a true story and similar to some books I’ve read.
My first clue that something ugly might be inside, was in the first few pages, before the preface, where there were some quotes (supposedly) from The Associated Press, and Reuters stating that the doctor (in later years) was arrested for rape, statutory rape, and endangering a minor. But after reading the preface by another doctor I thought maybe it was a false accusation. The second inkling I had that this was going to a dark disturbing place, happened in part 2 where he is starting medical school, experimenting on animals and conveying a complete lack of empathy in the suffering of the mice, dogs, and monkeys. Again I excused his behavior given the time period and the context of “all for the greater good of medical discoveries” that medical students and lab workers are exempt from; but this lack of empathy was a revealing look into his moral character. Then in the middle of the book, when they were finally in the jungle and made contact with the tribe; a child is raped, in a ceremony, as the doctor watches, observing, detached and justifying it as part of their culture. Enough already, this was sickening, and it makes me wonder about what publishers and editors consider “fresh new voices” and the best book of 2013; and why author’s who have choices in the retelling of a “based on a true stories” have to go to this depth of graphic detail. I’m doing something I hate doing, because I love books, but this one is going to the dump. It gets 1 star, because I have to give it something.
Wow I considered this book a total waste of my time. My two main critiques include the writing style and the pointlessness of the book’s content. First, in terms of the writing style, I found Hanya Yanagihara’s prose over-intellectualized and lacking any emotion. I get that our protagonist works as a researcher and has a stifled sense of self-awareness, and at the same time the lack of excitement and vivacity in the prose made this book a boring read. I recall watching an interview Yanagihara participated in after the publication of A Little Life and she herself said she wishes she had written this book differently, from a less detached standpoint. While A Little Life felt like all the emotions all the time, The People in the Trees lacked literally anything for me to resonate with.
I also simply did not understand the importance of this novel. Yanagihara portrays a white man who is sexist, fatphobic, racist, and a “white savior” in the worst possible way. I get that she highlights the horrible effects of colonialism, extractive academic research, and white masculine violence. However, I feel like we don’t need a poorly-written novel to highlight those forces when we already have many examples of colonialism, extractive academic research, and white masculine violence in our day to day lives??
I want to highlight two novels that take on similar themes or characters that I appreciated much more. In Danya Kukafka’s Notes on an Execution, she writes about a man who commits horrible acts of violence toward women. Instead of just describing this male character’s grotesque actions, Kukafka underscores how intergenerational trauma and the transmission of toxic masculinity contributed to his behaviors in the first place. I found this level of nuance missing in The People in the Trees. Similarly, in Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, she writes about a character who suffers severe childhood abuse of multiple kinds. While some critique Yanagihara for this book for various reasons, I loved how she showed that even for people who experience tremendous trauma, they can still cultivate loving and deep relationships even as their pain persists. The People in the Trees lacked any similar deeper or more heartfelt message, aside from the notion that colonialism and white supremacy are bad which again, we already know and Yanagihara doesn’t highlight in any really novel way in this text.
Overall, I would not recommend this novel. Fortunately I think Yanagihara has grown tremendously as a writer since this debut – I enjoyed her prose much more in both A Little Life and To Paradise even though I had many frustrations with the latter as well. So far she hasn’t picked a simple or mild topic to write about, that’s for sure.
Think of being in the jungle….perhaps a Castaway movie. Footnote 23: “All three guides were boar hunters on U’ivu, where the hogs mostly keep to the forests on the Ta’imana range; they would have had great expertise not only scaling steep inclines but negotiating rough jungle terrain”….. while….. Thinking about Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, the renowned immunologist —71 years old. He was charged with three counts of rape, three counts of statutory rape, two counts of sexual assault, and two counts of endangering a minor. The charges originated with one of Dr. Perkins’s adopted sons.
At the book’s opening, we learn Norton Perina is guilty of sexual abuse - of children - and sent to prison.
“The People In The Trees” was Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel. She was a brilliant novelist from the get-go. This is the third novel I’ve read by Hanya. They are all so completely different… But….after recently reading “To Paradise”….(worried ‘at first’ that I wouldn’t like it as much as “A Little Life”…fearing its complexities —and fearing my own mind of comparing the two books)…. I’m NO LONGER WORRIED about not being smart enough - or up to the task to read her books…..or comparing each Hanya book either. Why?…. I’ve learned a my ABC’s ‘with’ Hanya. There is one consistent thing in ‘all’ of her books —(something I love very much)….it’s that she has proven - [to me anyway]- to ALWAYS include INTIMACY- an experience of feeling included while getting to know her multi-dimensional characters well. No matter what the subject matter - be it academic, political, social, interpersonal relationships, morality, ethics, civil justice, anthropological ….etc. an irresistible-personal-alluring-down-to-earth humble flair is as much of her gifts as her super-plantasmagoria and ecological scientific- historic - genius-skills.
In each book, she has unique crafting. In “The People of the Trees”, footnotes add to the enjoyment pleasure….feels so real. In “To Paradise” — we see another type of styling-uniqueness: three books - 100 years apart - alternating versions of America. In “A Little Life”, she gave us an exquisite story about male friendships—four men. The type of relationship friendships that is common in women’s fiction but less cell and men’s relationship fiction.
So 1- Hanya is brilliant….and all her books are different. 2-Readers can count on enticing storytelling where the characters are so well developed- we feel included.
Back to THIS novel….”The People In The Trees”…
In 1950 a young doctor Norton Perina signs up for an anthropological expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. The rumors are true, but even more compelling is the discovery of a group of feral forest dwellers called ‘THE DREAMERS’ who defy normal life expectancy while growing progressively more senile. Norton Perina’s theory to their longevity is their diet of ‘TURTLE MEAT’….called opa’ivu’eke ….which is presumed to have mythical status in the island’s culture. Norton smuggles the opa’iva’eke back to the United States wanting to discover the secrets from ‘The Dreamers’. Ha…. He also brings back three of the dreamers and locks them into a laboratory—-totally secretive—at Stanford, where he works. Eventually his theory proves to be right and he wins the Nobel Prize but that’s not the end of the story….
Perina was among the only Westerners to be granted unlimited access to the most remote and secretive of islands in 1968. He adopted the first of what were to be 43 children from the country, all of whom were raised in his Bethesda home. Two years ago, Norton Perina was charged with rape and endangerment of a child, and his accuser is one of his adopted children.
I loved this book - better than I thought…It was REALLY ENGROSSING....(yes, creepy-sick-parts -but the over-all fascination about longevity, discoveries, it was all a kick-of interest!! At times it reminded me of “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett….(another book I loved and devoured-but I had a stink about the ending)….lol
Hanya’s writing is GORGEOUS….FASCINATING….and as ENGROSSING AS CAN BE….
We learn about Norton’s disposition, his fears, his relationship with his brother Owen…whom Norton considers his brother his academic equal. Norton gravitated even as a child. Owen towards literature. “We have not, of course, had either the easiest or most consistent of relationships, but at one time Owen and I were very close, and even when we were not, even when he was passing through one of his childishly enthusiastic phases in which he adopted and abandoned idealisms and philosophies like other boys and girls, he was amusing, and witty, and bright. He was my ambassador to the world outside my own. Not that guy myself was immune to romanticism. I remember as a young man once telling Owen that he should fashion himself after me. Look at me, I told him (he rolled his eyes)— I am going to be a scientists”.
We learn about Norton’s-undeniable scientific skills…. We also learn the truth - unfortunately- of his sexually abusing children —almost justified it (a pedophilia justifier)….
Page after page is filled with a combination of brilliance and devastation — We are left with the question… how do we reconcile a persons feelings with his genius?
*Note….this ‘novel’ was inspired by the Daniel Carleton Gajdusek….. an American physician and medical researcher who is the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology in Medicine in 1976 for work on an infectious agent which would later be identified as the cause of kuru (incurable and fatal neurodegenerative disorder), the first known human prion disease. In the course of his research trips in the South Pacific, Gajdusek had brought 56 mostly male children back to live with him in the United States, and provided them with an opportunity to receive high school and college education. One of these boys, now a grown man, later accused him of molesting him as a child. He was charged… Pleaded guilty in 1997, and under a plea bargain, was sentenced to 12 months in jail. He was released in 1998. .
One of the best books I've read this year - complex and unsettling but so brilliantly crafted. I was both disappointed and intrigued to find out this was a fictional version of an actual Nobel Prize-winning scientist's life; on one hand, I thought it was such an interesting narrative and am a tiny bit less impressed to know that Yanagihara didn't fully come up with the ideas herself, but on the other, it's shocking and fascinating to know that this was actually someone's life.
I've been interested in anthropology since I read Lily King's Euphoria earlier this year, and The People in the Trees focuses on that topic but encompasses so much more - moral ambiguity is everywhere here, and I could never quite figure out which side I agreed with. In some ways, Norton Perina is an abhorrent figure, but he is just so realistically flawed and human that you can't help but feel sympathetic towards him and even understand (some) of his motives.
I also loved the structure - the novel opens with several newspaper articles detailing Norton's legal struggles and gives a high level summary of his career and accomplishments, followed by an introduction by Perina's close friend, colleague, and probably his biggest fan, Ronald Kubodera, who has edited and annotated Norton's memoirs, which make up the majority of the remainder of the text. Ronald's footnotes are rarely dry (as I often find with footnotes), and instead add texture and useful information, both technical and personal, to Norton's life story. He also provides the closing chapter, which just hits you with a bang.
I haven't been able to forget about it, and have now made Yanagihara's A Little Life a reading priority. By all accounts it's just as (maybe even more so) masterfully done, and I'm very excited by the prospect of a new favourite author.
Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, a brilliant scientist, won a Nobel Prize in 1974 for discovering the Selene syndrome, a condition that retards aging - almost 25 years later, the Micronesian island where he found the key to what seemed to be eternal life has been utterly exploited by Western pharmaceutical companies, the indigenous civilization has been destroyed, and Norton himself was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing his adopted children.
Yanagihara gives us the complete outline of her story right at the beginning, and then takes her readers on an unsettling, dark and fascinating journey through Norton's life and, most importanly, his mind: From his childhood to university to his work in a lab for animal testing and from there on into the Micronesian jungle and finally to the house in which he lived with more than 40 adopted indigenous children. The story is told mainly from Norton's perspective, and he is unapologetic about all the havoc he has caused: From his point of view, he did what every scientist would have done, he would do it again without hesitation, and before he met the children, they were less than dogs in their third world poverty, he rationalizes.
This author is just brilliant when it comes to psychological writing, and this tale is so gripping and thought-provoking that I could hardly put it down. Norton has some doubts regarding the consequences of his actions, but as he severely lacks empathy with other people and living creatures in general, his self-image is distorted: He is not interested in feelings or morals, he wants to know, explore, dominate. And then there's the question whether intellectual brilliance excuses anything - this book seems to become more timely by the minute. This is a harsh critique of Western exploitation, the way the West (including the scientific community) looks at other cultures and the way science and capitalism go hand in hand.
This would have gotten 5 stars from me if it weren't for the last chapter, the "missing chapter" from the book Norton wrote- this last piece answers all questions in a very direct way, although at that point, every attentive reader already grasped what must have happened due to the many clues throughout the book. This was Yanagihara's debut, so maybe she didn't trust herself enough - she could have though, because this is a fantastic book.
I loved the anthropology and science elements of this novel. I ask found it pretty gripping at times, specially the parts set on the island.
I’m not sure the parts talking of Norton’s childhood and parents were completely necessary to the story. Although I did find them interesting.
I read this despite not being sure about the authors other novel ‘a little life’ but thought this book sounded a lot different. It was different and less intense that a little life but there are also similar themes such as child abuse. Therefor it was not always a comfortable read and overall I found it a little disturbing.
Some of you might know that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is one of my favorite books of all time; in fact, it was my #1 book of the last decade. So a friend and I decided to read The People in the Trees, her debut novel, and see whether that captivated and compelled as much as A Little Life did.
In short, The People in the Trees was at times beautiful, bewildering, compelling, and disturbing. Presented as the memoir of fictional scientist and Nobel Prize winner Norton Perina, it follows the man from his childhood through his years of research and experimentation, to his later years spent in jail.
When he was a young man just out of medical school, Perina was invited to join a noted anthropologist on a trip to a remote Micronesian island. There they find a group of people who might have found the secret to halting the aging process—but at what cost?
Where A Little Life devastated me emotionally, The People in the Trees merely disturbed me. It raised some interesting ethical and scientific questions, and looked at the cost of progress. But in the end, this is the story of a flawed man desperate to find his place in the world, both in science and in life.
Yanagihara is so talented; her imagery is so vivid and her characters are richly drawn. This book was meticulously researched and written; there are numerous footnotes with fictional citations, etc. But parts of the story get really bogged down in detail, and then there’s the troubling parts—child sexual abuse and animal abuse. (If those things are triggers for you, you're advised to avoid this book.)
If you read this, it’s great to do so with someone so you can discuss it. Despite my mixed feelings here, I can’t wait to see what comes next in Yanagihara's career. Hopefully it leaves me feeling more like her second book did!
Maybe it's just me, but I'm delighted whenever this happens. If you're a little hesitant, fear not. This is no gimmick. There is no better way this strange story could be told. The book is framed as Norton Perina's memoir that he's writing from jail. The introduction, editing, and footnotes are done by his friend, Ronald. At one point, Norton Perina says about his life:
"...I have found that contemplating the events of that year becomes tolerable only when I consider them as things that happened long ago and to someone else--some series of misfortunes and tragedies that befell someone I once admired and had read about in a dusty book in a grand, stone-floored library somewhere far away, where there was no sound, no light, no movement but for my own breath, and my fingers clumsily turning the rough-cut pages."
That's what reading this book feels like. And it's a glorious feeling.
2. // There are unreliable narrator(s).
Remember Ronald who edits the memoir? He admits to being biased toward Norton Perina, as they're friends, and he also says that he has edited things out that seem unnecessary. That paired with a main character whose only focus seems to be success and who is in jail for a horrible crime he says he didn't commit? You always have to be on your toes as you read this story. Not all is as it seems.
3. // There are some disturbed characters.
As Yanagihara proved this year with A Little Life, she can take you to some dark places in her books. And the darkest places are within the minds of her characters, which she creates so richly and thoughtfully. The complexity of these people is revealed so subtly, it feels like you're discovering secrets as you read. Every revelation about a character is well placed and well timed. Norton Perina is a troubling individual on so many different levels and I love that.
4. // Hanya Yanagihara's writing is so immersive.
I really don't know how she does it. I mean a lot of it has to do with the context of this being a memoir that you're reading, but you get completely immersed in the story and the characters she has created. Her written landscaping of this fictional island is so in depth and atmospheric, you can feel the heat and darkness and claustrophobia of the jungle. None of the weirder plot points took me out of the story at all; they only helped to suck me in.
5. // It's also really beautiful.
My arms cramped up from how many paragraphs I typed up. Because it's written as a memoir by a scientist with extensive footnotes, it looks and feels like it should be dense. I'm not going to say you can race through it in one sitting, but there was no point in this book that I was bored. Yanagihara's prose is so lyrical. I mean, look at this.
"I stood periodically and listened to the dry palm fronds chattering against one another like bones, and to the ocean, its remorseless, lonely conversation with itself, a sound that—though I did not know it at the time—I would not hear again for months to come."
6. // Physical immortality is acquired through eating mystical turtles.
Ok, this isn't always criteria for me, but it's definitely a bonus. Despite how human the plot is, the fantastical elements really take it up a notch. The discovery of "The Dreamers" (the people who are 100+ years old, but incommunicable due to mental deterioration) is so intense. Not knowing how many more are in the jungle is more so. The tribe of islanders and their customs are fascinating. The folklore behind the turtles that provide physical immortality is so interesting to read. All of these strange elements adds a richness through its inventiveness and layering, and it only helps magnify the the real life issues: exploration, globalization, mortality, progress, ego, etc.
It had to've taken more than 18 days to read this. Read it after A Little Life -- author said somewhere that her second novel was a response to this one, the story of the abused, not the abuser. Her novels are like 10+-mile runs: they're worth it and filled with wonderful moments but also there are always times when I want them to end. I admire this for the steady descriptive tone, the lush island atmosphere, the invented vocab perfectly deployed, the dual unreliable narrators, the boldness of some of it, and most importantly the imagination and ambition, especially for a first novel. After the first 80 or so pages, I was thinking this seemed like the dictionary-definition example of a novel that didn't need its frame (a prologue explaining the scientist's discovery and later trouble with the law and imprisonment), but by the final 50 pages I appreciated the structure. Throughout, it's also a top-notch example of seeing around an unreliable narrator -- realizing that there's more to the story than a narrator reveals. Lots of narrative drive since we know upfront that the scientist narrator Norton has been arrested for pedophilia, so we're waiting for those bits to come up, but they're not really even introduced as a theme until maybe 200+ pages into it. Not at all as graphic as "A Little Life," not even close -- other than the islander's ritual, described with something like a cross between poetic engagement and anthropological detachment, it's all suggested . Like "A Little Life," it's clear she's concerned with matching structure to story. Loved the section edited out as a footnote and then allowed at the very end -- changes pretty much everything. Innocence and experience. Socialization and sodomy. Rape of island and child. Closeted '50s sexuality/sensibility -- almost a sort of historical novel that way. Norton didn't strike me as such an obvious monster, as derided in many reviews. He's not exaggerated, in any case. He's believable. The author, as in her second novel, does a great job presenting the complexity of character and situation. Will definitely read whatever she writes next.
Please explain to me why so few of my friends have read this book. It's a triumph of style--not 'voice,' not 'authentic expression,' but style. PT is, for the most part, the 'memoirs' of a medical anthropologist, Norton Perina. He is one of the great characters of this young century, and Yanagihara's ability to write in his slightly ludicrous way is an absolutely astonishing feat of literary irony.
The book's plot is glorious, as well; a little slow at the beginning, which I think is true for most well-plotted books, but ultimately perfectly balanced. Consider for a moment how rare it is to find even a moderately well-written book that is also a well plotted book. Please, buy a copy of PT and read it.
And it deals, intelligently and without condescending at all, with some of the most important ideas of our time: environmentalism, neo-colonialism, scientism, naturalism, the craving for roots, and, most of all, the difficulty of reconciling two things most of us know/feel to be true, i.e., i) that we live in an historically changing world, which is also home to many, many cultures, all of them adhering to different ethical codes; and, ii) that there are some moral truths.
But, mostly, I can't get over the formal perfection of the book. We know Norton from his first sentences: he affects tolerance, objectivity and wisdom, but is actually self-deluded. As the text unwinds, we see the delusion wind its way through the story; he is no ordinary unreliable narrator. Norton is the unreliable narrator *as scientist*, presenting us with facts and the results of experiments, proving his perceptions with every paragraph--but we know it is all false. The novel doesn't ask us to question the narrator's truthfulness; it asks us to question the truthfulness of the world that produces men like the narrator.
You can get at very important truths with the scientific method. You can also get at some very important truths using art, distance, and, most importantly, irony. And I can't do justice to how well Yanagihara does it, in this review, try as I might.
“If someone is called a genius, and then becomes a monster, are they still a genius?”
This book isn’t easy. Yanagihara has no taste for faint-hearted subject material.
The People in The Trees reminds me of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in a gruesome way. There is a pattern in history and colonialism wherein men view one another as objects of study. And then, within that pattern, violence and brutality become subjective to the eyes of the beholder.
Yanagihara’s writing is what grips me. She makes the benign poetic and the gut-wrenching simple. Perina is a monster, in my view, to the greatest degree a man can be a monster. He is an unreliable memoirist and from the start vaguely unlikable.
What I think Yanagihara did in such a realistic way was reveal the truth about Perina. From the start he has a view of people that is at best sociopathic. He struggles to feel affection for anything other than his work. He does not condone assault of any kind, justifying the acts of the tribes people against children as a quirk of culture. Perina was never a genius. He was just a monster who people never saw behind the mask of man. And in the end, what he wanted all along was what he desired from the very start. Power. It was that simple all along. At its root, he desired power and he achieved the greatest euphoric sense of power through abusing his own children and calling it love.
A lot of people argue the major theme of this book is moral relativism, but I disagree. Yes, the theme is there, but was that Yanigahara’s point. I don’t think so.
I think it’s about cruelty.
I think it’s about how cruelty exists in every corner of the world and it can be found even in the people who act upon it and call it salvation.
I don’t recommend this book to anyone. But I do think it is just as much a masterpiece as A Little Life.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
In the final pages this beautifully written story takes a dark turn that's left me questioning its reason for being. In the beginning I was confident I'd begun an anthropological adventure with magical realism elements. As I read on, I was disturbed by the flashes of cruelty coming from the main character, scientist Norton Perina. This is a man who relishes killing his lab mice and who regards the tribal people he studies as less than human. I was troubled by these things while reading, but it wasn't until the final pages, when author Hanya Yanagihara details , that I was actually depressed, and still am. I wouldn't ever say reading The People in the Trees was a waste of time, but if I'd known this information before starting I'm not sure I ever would've read it. Is this a story not of a magical place but instead a hopeless story of a cruel scientist, a story that's sad only for the sake of being sad? That's what it seems to be.
I wanted to read only about the tribal people living in this fictional Micronesian country, an unspoiled and enigmatic land with large pockets of foreboding jungle. I wanted to stay fully immersed in the magical-realistic place, a multi-dimensional world where eating a new breed of turtle leads to immortality (though of a low quality), and where a mango-like fruit contains grubs at its core, grubs that metamorphose into a new breed of golden butterfly. Yanagihara made this strange place come alive, and for all its magic, it somehow seems plausible. She dreamed up a language and elaborately detailed people with unusual (often upsetting) cultural traditions. It feels very grounded in reality, but then she went a step further and added numerous footnotes--that amazingly don't disrupt flow--to add further verisimilitude to this fictional account. If it were to be revealed that The People in the Trees is actually nonfiction, I wouldn't doubt it for a second. Nevertheless, it's in her magical creations that Yanagihara showed off her abilities to their fullest extent and where she enchanted me most.
So it's sad that her story takes a turn that transforms it from mystical wonder to cold realism. She wrote a turn that takes it from one-of-a-kind to run-of-the-mill. I didn't want to read about a violent pedophile. I wanted to read about another world.
Although I'm not sure exactly what Yanagihara intended with The People in the Trees, rating it less than four stars feels wrong, because she's a deeply imaginative storyteller and an exquisite writer. Hers is some of the most elegant writing I've ever read--and, most importantly, gorgeous writing that's effortless, unfurling smoothly from one sentence to the next. If Yanagihara is guilty of anything in her writing, it's that she overuses simile--but I'd rather that than clunkiness, and besides, her similes are inventive and often lovely.
On my book, a blurb from The Wall Street Journal describes The People in the Trees as "haunting" and "thrilling." I disagree on that latter descriptor but do agree on the former. This story got under my skin and already is haunting me. I'll be mulling it over for a long time, but in time I do hope to forget much of it.
Extraordinary. This novel is remarkable in any number of ways - but in particular in the way it plays with the reader (at least, this reader) who can intellectually embrace the notion of moral relativism; yet for whom moral absolutism on some issues prevails.
The People in the Trees is a triumph of narrative voice and structure. The development and writing of the central character, Norton Perina, is positively masterful. The imagery--visceral, grotesque--perfectly chosen. A novel about even one of the huge, thorny themes raised (scientific method, human subjects research, colonialism, racism, sociopathy, sexual taboos, parenting, pedophilia, destruction of the environment, aging and death, and more) can be powerful; when these themes are wound together, dense as a jungle and as tightly as DNA, and laced within a story and with writing this precise and compelling, the result is transcendent.
So powerful and provocative; the questions it's raised and discomfort it's provoked will, I feel sure, linger.
How do I describe this perplexing novel? It starts with a newspaper story that the narrator, Norton Perina, has been imprisoned for sexually abusing one of his adopted children. And then that revelation is sidelined for a few hundred pages as he proceeds to detail his fascinating scientific endeavors. Yet the reader has the knowledge gnawing throughout, coloring every word. Unreliable narrator is an understatement! I was frustrated and uncomfortable with this book yet by the end must conclude that Yanagihara is brilliant.
Νομίζω καιρός ήταν να διαβάσω και εγώ ένα βιβλίο της Χάνια Γιαναγκιχάρα, γι'αυτό και επέλεξα το συγκεκριμένο και όχι το "Λίγη ζωή" -που είναι με διαφορά το πιο πολυδιαβασμένο έργο της-, γιατί είναι μικρότερο σε μέγεθος (αν και μια χαρά τουβλάκι), αλλά και θεματολογικά λίγο πιο κοντά στα αναγνωστικά μου γούστα, σε σχέση με το άλλο. Επίσης είναι και το πρώτο μυθιστόρημα που έγραψε η συγγραφέας, οπότε γιατί να μην πάρω το έργο της από την αρχή;
Η αλήθεια είναι ότι κρατούσα σχετικά μικρό καλάθι για το βιβλίο, λόγω κάποιων αντικρουόμενων κριτικών από δω και από κει, τελικά όμως τσάμπα ανησυχούσα, μιας και το βιβλίο με άφησε σχεδόν απόλυτα ικανοποιημένο, τόσο από άποψη πλοκής, όσο κυρίως από άποψη γραφής. Πρώτα-πρώτα δεν ήξερα ότι η όλη ιστορία βασίζεται σε αληθινά γεγονότα, έστω και με όλες τις απαραίτητες διαφοροποιήσεις και αλλαγές σε ονόματα και καταστάσεις. Νομίζω ότι αυτό το στοιχείο κάνει ακόμα πιο... τρομακτική την ιστορία, γιατί, φυσικά, τι πιο τρομακτικό από την πραγματικότητα, ε;
Από κει και πέρα, η Γιαναγκιχάρα κατάφερε να με κρατήσει στην τσίτα από την αρχή μέχρι το τέλος, χάρη στην εθιστική και κατά τη γνώμη μου απόλυτα καθηλωτική αφήγηση: Ειλικρινά σας το λέω, θα μπορούσα ακόμα και να το διαβάσω μονορούφι, δίχως σταματημό, αν δεν είχα και άλλα πράγματα να κάνω στο μεταξύ. Η γραφή είναι πραγματικά πάρα μα πάρα πολύ καλή, οξυδερκής και με περιγραφές που δημιουργούν κάθε είδους εικόνες και συναισθήματα. Και επίσης κατάφερε να με κάνει να συμπαθήσω τον αφηγητή, έστω και αν στο τέλος τον σιχάθηκα τελικά και κατάλαβα τι εστί παρανοϊκός νους. Τέλος, εννοείται πως η όλη ατμόσφαιρα είναι εξαιρετικά υποβλητική.
Γενικά, πρόκειται για ένα ιδιαίτερο και σχετικά ιδιόρρυθμο μυθιστόρημα, μπορεί να πει κανείς ένα βιβλίο μέσα σ'ένα βιβλίο, το οποίο όμως δύσκολα είναι για όλα τα γούστα, χάρη στις ιδιαιτερότητες και την όλη δομή της ιστορίας. Επίσης υπάρχουν κάποια κουραστικά κομμάτια (ίσως περισσότερο στην αρχή), άρα ούτε εγώ που το απόλαυσα δεν μπορώ να πω ότι είναι τέλειο σαν μυθιστόρημα. Όμως τα θέματα που αγγίζει άμεσα ή έμμεσα (π.χ. η ιατρική ηθική), τα μηνύματα που περνάει, αλλά και τους προβληματισμούς που φέρνει στο προσκήνιο, κάνουν το βιβλίο να διαφέρει κάπως από τα υπόλοιπα. Και, φυσικά, αυτή η υπέροχη γραφή... Το μόνο σίγουρο είναι ότι θα αγοράσω κάποια στιγμή και το "Λίγη ζωή", αν και δεν ξέρω πόσος καιρός θα περάσει μέχρι να το διαβάσω...
Based on the true story of Nobel-laureate Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a medical researcher and convicted child molester, the novel follows the life of Dr. Perina and his research into a (fictional) tribe living on an isolated Micronesian island.
What strikes you first is that the 'world-building' of the invented island and the various tribes is stunning, detailed and lively. From rites to language, from landscape to wildlife and fauna, you never have the feeling that the world is invented, it feels absolutely real. The same is true for the invented medical topic (extended physical life due to the consumation of a certain turtle, paired with mental deterioration).
But most amazing is how Yanagihara is able to render the voice of her - intensely self-centred, immoral and cruel - main character. Most of the novel is told in the first person (as Perina's memoir) and it's not often that you encounter a more unlikeable main character and, as a reader, still want to carry on reading what he has to tell.
Power, abuse of power and the question of universal moral standards are the main themes of the novel and it offers the reader no solace. The portrayal of Western hybris and the detached, horribly de-humanizing way in which science treats its human subjects is sometimes hard to cope with.
The People in the Trees is not a novel to 'enjoy' but a book that will stay with you for a long time.
I should have written a review closer in time to having read this, but it's been nuts!
I had a particular interest in the book, based on a slight personal connection. I had a close college friend who was related to Dr. D. Carleton Gadjusek, the Nobel-prize winning scientist who adopted dozens of children from Micronesia, and was eventually convicted of child molestation and died in disgraced exile. That story provides the precise template for all of this book except the science. Anyway, I have a vivid memory of meeting a couple of Dr. Gadjusek's children when they visited my friend at college - the thing that stuck in my mind was how boyish they seemed - their chronological ages didn't fit their small stature and young-seeming demeanor, and I seem to recall that they came out drinking with us, and it was hard for me to adjust to since they seemed so young. At that time, I was fascinated by what seemed like a noble but overwhelming project - how does one raise 50 children - and I wanted to understand more, but really didn't grasp the dynamic. When the headlines came several years, I was very saddened for my friend, but struck again by the mystery of how 50+ children make a family - and puzzled as to what had actually happened at that house in Maryland.
So, I was interested to see what Yanagihara made of this unique story. Unfortunately, while she paints a chilling portrait of Dr. Perina (the fictional Gadjusek), a sociopath who enjoys killing mice and who is viscerally repulsed by women (and silently gay), I felt the book plodded, and didn't do justice to the fascination of its source material. While the child molestation story frames the book, Yanigahara seems actually more interested in the scientific parable she tells of immortality, innocence and destruction. But for me, those parts of the book just dragged - we have pages upon pages of descriptions of the jungle, with little pay off. Then when the story of the children, the adoptions, family life, accusations etc. finally come - it is very rushed and seems disconnected from the rest of the book.
I may be a bit unfair. I read this book while traveling, and was very distracted.
I have to hand it to Yanagihara here for writerly discipline. Perhaps writing in the voice of an unsympathetic elderly man comes naturally to her, but crafting this into something convincing or at least artfully contrived is an impressive feat, and resisting the temptation to intervene in author voice wouldn't have been possible for me!
I suppose with whatever I'm reading I ask myself: Is this literature critical? Yanagihara's book traverses difficult territory, the dangerous grounds of child abuse and colonisation, and I wondered what she wanted me to think, what her angle was, behind Perina and Ron, and whether it was safe. The sharp unravelling in the postscript of the text's meticulously constructed ambiguity should have made her intentions easier to read, but certainly, I felt, left open many avenues of reflection I'd been wandering down, on the implications of aging populations and the ethics of big pharma.
I wish I knew more about anthropology, since its representatives here, Paul and Esme, are weirdly, humourously distorted through the highly unreliable prism of the narrator's perceptions. Yanagihara certainly does not romanticise 'primitive' culture here, but Perina's clinical, even sociopathic descriptions are suspect. Alternative views are hinted at, and though I itched for more of them, I respected the decison to leave well alone (perhaps a deliberately exemplary gesture. Ultimately, the book was as uncomfortable as, say, Lolita, and raised toothsome questions without pushing answers. The setting provided strange, unsettling pleasures. A good read for me.
There’s something so special about Hanya Yanagihara’s writing even when she’s writing about harrowing or off putting subjects. She has such an ability to get into the marrow of her characters and she’s not afraid to explore the ugly side of human nature.
I was taken completely by surprise as I was uncertain if I was entering another ‘A Little Life’ vortex (that book was nearly the death of me) but this book felt like a different author altogether, the topic and scene couldn’t be further from what I was expecting, far removed from NYC life although some connecting themes and tone of writing were similar. This book drew me in, the mere fact of its strangeness and how the story unfolds was fascinating and intriguing. I wasn’t sure where the book was leading but I felt a real sick pleasure in how Hanya finished the book. It was brilliant. It’s twisted and sinister and awful in all kinds of ways. The only criticism I felt was the last half, the adopting of all the tribe children, I found it all became abit over the top outlandish up until that part I felt that the book read (almost) believable. I could go on for days about this book and this author but I’ll spare you. I just feel overly compelled to sing the praises and marvel at her confidence as a author. This was her debut! Incredible and awe inspiring.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
This is truly a perfect novel. Yanagihara manages to critique the evils of colonialism, science, and its fascinating but ultimately sickening repercussions. She turns a sharp eye toward Western philosophies and behaviors, which, throughout history, have caused the demise of many a nation and culture. Then, there is the honest look at sexual abuse and pedophilia, around which topic the book frames itself. The author is unflinchingly pedantic and academic in her exploration of the darkest subjects, casting the perpetrator of each grossly inhumane act depicted in the book as it's first-hand narrator.
"For it, after all, is a story with disease at its heart."
A lot of people start their reviews of this book by talking about the author’s second novel, which nearly everyone (including me) read first. I am slightly unnerved by the number of people who say how much they enjoyed A Little Life. It was compelling and powerful, but it was not, for my money, enjoyable. That doesn’t mean it was in any way bad - it is a remarkable book and well worth reading as long as you are mentally strong enough and in the right place to cope with its dark subject matter.
This debut novel from Yanagihara also deals with some delicate and disturbing topics although it is nothing like as harrowing as her second novel. It is very loosely based on the true story of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek who was both a Nobel prizewinner and a convicted child molester. Yanagihara’s novel is framed as the memoirs of Dr Norton Perina, a Nobel prize winner and convicted child molester (this is not a spoiler as it is explained in newspaper articles included on the first pages of the book) as edited and annotated by Ronald Kubodera, a long time colleague and friend of Perina’s.
It is important to note that it is actually almost impossible to post spoilers for this book because Yanagihara uses Kubodera’s annotations to Perina’s text to post a multitude of spoilers as the book progresses. Very little of what happens takes the reader by surprise as most of it has been at least hinted at, sometimes more, in the footnotes added by Kubodera. Yanagihara is not concerned so much with springing surprises on the reader, but more with making the reader think about the topics she is discussing: western imperialism, power and its abuse and even, through the structure of the book, questions of ownership of a story and of editing.
The main part of the story covers the time Perina spends on a fictional Micronesian island Ivu’ivu, one of three islands in fictional Micronesian country of U’ivu. He discovers a tribe that seems to have discovered the secret of eternal life, although it comes with a heavy price. His work on this makes him famous and wins him the Nobel prize. But, like the secret of the tribe’s long life, Perina’s fame and fortune take a heavy toll. The book explores the implications of Perina's discoveries for both the island and Perina (it is not a happy story for either of them!).
There are two things that are particularly admirable about this book. Firstly, the creation of Perina himself who has a consistent and believable voice all the way through and becomes a very real person in the reader’s mind. Secondly, the detail that supports the creation of U’ivu alongside things like the bibliographical footnotes referencing supporting scientific papers, make the whole novel feel very factual. There are prolonged periods in the book where these two things combine and where you forget that you are reading a work of fiction.
Overall, this is a powerful and cleverly constructed novel and well worth reading. My thanks to the Picador for a review copy provided via NetGalley.
Thoughts immediately after finishing: I have just finished the last page and those who have already read this will understand exactly what I am mean when I say I feel shaken. I don't want to write too much and don't know yet if I will be able to write a spoiler-free review. I need some time to think. But it is so important you experience this book as Yanagihara intended.
After a few days recovery: I am never going to be able to get this book out of my head. After having a bit more time to think, I think I am able to write a little more about why it hit me so deeply without giving too much way, because as I said above, you must experience this book as it is written without any spoilers and preconceptions.
If A Little Life is anywhere near as flawlessly crafted as her debut novel, then Yanagihara deserves every bit of praise she has received. Not having read that one yet, I can't comment on that myself or how it compares with The People in the Trees, but I'm certainly very eager to read more by Yanagihara soon after being utterly blown away by the level of skill and thought that has gone into creating this marvellous book. The development and characterisation of the protagonist, Norton Perina, a Noble-prize winning scientist, is simply perfect from start to finish. This is aided by the fantastic use of narrative structure: Norton's memoirs, naturally in first person, take up the largest part of the novel, but this is accompanied by an introduction and closing chapter written by Norton's friend and colleague, who also edited and annotated the memoirs with footnotes. I don't want to give away exactly why this structure works so well, but, trust me on this, it's a perfect fit.
If you asked me to be really picky, at some point in the middle, after Norton returns from his first visit in Ivu'ivu, I had begun to feel the book was losing steam. This was after being so captivated with the novel's beginning, Norton's early life and his arrival in Ivu'ivu. Well, this slight lull ended up not mattering at all, as the final third kicks it up a notch and takes the book in a direction I never could have predicted (). I was enthralled from this point on, until the ending which almost completely destroyed me emotionally.
I will say it now: this is not a book for everyone. Norton Perina is a deeply troubled and despicable individual and this novel explores the inner working of his mind in a way that is very disconcerting. I felt cheated, hoodwinked after the final page. The novel plays with and deceives the reader throughout in a way that's clever, but pretty cruel. It goes without saying, that this book is dark, unsettling and often sickening. The novel also may be in need of a major trigger warning for , in particular, but it also covers several other themes that are deeply troubling: .
However, for me personally, The People in the Trees is a literary masterpiece. I have not had such a strong emotional reaction to a book in a long time. This powerful book, and the many questions it raised, will certainly stay with me for a long time. I simply cannot stop thinking about it or recommend it highly enough.