The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara


I picked up this book not long after the Tournament of Books 2014 finalists were announced. I had been thoroughly pleased to note that this list was full of books I was already wanting to read, like The Goldfinch and Life after Life and The Good Lord Bird (and am still wanting to read, having not actually read any yet). It was also one of the few times I had actually read a book (just one – the very adorable Eleanor & Park – which if you have not read, you really ought to!) on an awards shortlist (see the other finalists below – you are welcome). And there were also some books that I was rather curious about.

It so happened that one of these books I was curious about was available as an e-book download from my library, and so up it went, onto the Kindle. And there it stayed for a while, until in a moment of panic I realized it was due back in less than a week, and if you’ve borrowed e-books, you might know that these books can’t be renewed, and simply poof from your screens when the loan is over. And so I read it, and at first I was like, ugh, what am I reading? And then before I knew it I was up past my bedtime (really really easy to do since I sleep at 10pm – horrors I know, but the husband gets up at 6am, and the baby then gets awakened and while he’s a very easygoing little almost-ten-month-old who will play with his fingers and talk to his mobile instead of crying, he seems to have developed a morning poop schedule). Anyway, before we go into diaper details, I was trying to get to talking about The People in the Trees, which turned out to be a far more absorbing book than I was expecting.

But first, the Tournament of Books finalists:

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Hill William by Scott McClanahan
The Son by Philipp Meyer
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
[Winner of the Pre-Tournament Playoff Round]

Pre-Tournament Playoff Round
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Oh, that might not have been the best of ideas. I probably lost most of you there, you’re probably off scanning your library catalogue or making lists or something already.

Anyway, the story opens with an article from the Associated Press, “Renowned Scientist Faces Charges of Sexual Abuse”: Dr Abraham Norton Perina is charged with abusing his adopted sons. The article goes on to inform the reader that Perina won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974 for identifying the Selena syndrome, in which “the victim’s body remains preserves in relative youth as his mind degrades”. This was discovered among the Opa’ivu’eke people of Ivu’ivu and acquired through the consumption of a rare turtle.

So essentially we know what Perina is famous for – and now infamous for.

Then we begin with a preface by Ronald Kubodera, who worked in Norton’s lab at the National Institutes of Health, and who claims to still be his devoted friend. And who is typing and editing Perina’s memoir, which he is writing in prison. Kubodera’s “light” touch can be seen in the many footnotes that dot the manuscript, adding a variety of details, both scholarly and personal. Unreliable narrator alert!

Perina joins the research team of Paul Tallent, an anthropologist looking for a lost tribe, more specifically for the Manu’eke, “he meant to hunt down a creature that loped through children’s nightmares, that populated campfire tales, that existed in the same universe as stones who could mate with planets and father mountains and men”.

“At night I dreamed of green, great floating blobs of it, morphing gently from one shade to the next, and in the mornings I woke feeling beaten and exhausted. During the daces: of glass and concrete and chips of mica glinting from asphalted streets.”

And after weeks of trudging through the forest, after days of endless constant green, they spot some thing, some one, who had “once, long ago, been taught how to behave as a human and was slowly, steadily forgetting”, “her tongue lolling out stupidly , her eyes fixed on nothing”. But the Spam they lay out attracts her and she moves with them in a kind of ritual “stare, stare, sniff, sniff, eat, eat, belch”.

Then there are more of them. And they all bear the mark of someone who has turned 60 (and in this society “an impossible age, and a coveted one”): “in slumber they appeared a strange hybrid, their bodies those of sturdy children, their faces those of someone much older: a crone, a wizard, a sorcerer”.

But there is a strange relationship with these elders and the villagers that the team find. They are shunned, outcasts. It is quite unexpected and a little bewildering. And Perina is determined to uncover their secrets.

Yanagihara has admirably created this whole society, an imaginary island nation with its own language and culture. One that feels so real that and well-researched, that it reads like an actual memoir, of an actual person.

And more importantly, she sucks the reader into the story of Perina, his discoveries, his perversities. His oddly compelling story. Odd because he is difficult, he is unlikeable, brilliant yes, but ultimately cruel and cold. Yet despite his brilliance he is also surprisingly honest about his own shortcomings. Perhaps that’s the part that makes him more human. (Perina is based loosely on the real-life scientist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, says Yanagihara in this interview. She conceptualized the book during Gajdusek’s trial in the mid-1990s when she was 21 and finished it when she was 36.)

But he is telling this remarkable, unforgettable story. Of discovering a ‘lost’ tribe, of uncovering the secret to their longevity. And unfortunately, it does also tells of some rather creepy, uncomfortable sexual acts (although, to be fair, Yanagihara does tell the reader straight up that this is the story of a convicted paedophile). For it is a story about power, a critique about western imperialism, and what a thought-provoking, absorbing read it is.


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