The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
Christmas is exactly one week away, and there’s no time to waste. So, I’m going to toss out a few descriptions of this exceptional novel, one of my favorite releases of 2013. If you find any of this off-putting—and some of you will—then there’s no need to read any further. Do come back tomorrow, though!
A remote Micronesian island named Ivu’ivu. A primitive tribe of U’ivuan forest-dwellers known as “The Dreamers.” A rare turtle called the opa’ivu’eke that mysteriously helps humans achieve immortality. Science, anthropology, moral relativism. Footnotes, and lots of them.
Did I lose you yet? For those of you still with me, those readers who don’t seem to mind a little (or a lot of) science in your fiction, you’ll be well rewarded by this ambitious, thoughtful debut from Hanya Yanagihara.
The novel builds layer upon layer from the opening pages. A fictional scientist, Dr. Ronald Kubodera, is transcribing, editing, and annotating the story of the book’s main character, Dr. Norton Perina. Perina achieved world renown and snagged the Nobel Prize for his amazing findings in Micronesia, but, interestingly enough, he is currently in prison due to allegations involving the 40-plus U’ivuan children he brought back to the United States to adopt and raise. In the course of relating Perina’s strange story, the novel delves into issues of morality, hubris, and the human condition. It also references another famous literary classic, whose title I won’t divulge for fear of ruining this book for you. Suffice it to say, Perina recalls another of literature’s most famous unreliable narrators.
What is Perina accused of, what motivated him to do what he did, and would others have acted the same? These questions plague readers all along, as we try to sift through Perina’s unreliable narration to uncover the truth. “All I can say is this,” writes Perina, “I did try. I did what I thought was best. Today I am often torn, when telling this part of the story, between making apologies and not. I did not go to the island, as so many later did, to make money, or to try to convince one group of people to live and eat and believe as I did. I went for an adventure, and with the pure hope of exploration. I did not go to destroy a people or a country, as I am so often accused of doing, as if such things are ever as frequent or intentional as assumed. Did I, however, end up doing so? It is not for me to decide.”
The People in the Trees creates an exciting tension between fiction and science, and, if you’re up for a long, marvelous journey, you’ll not only get to see another part of the world; you’ll also explore the most primitive places inside the human psyche.