The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
It is 1950 when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumored lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of forest 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. Disquieting yet thrilling, The People in the Trees is an anthropological adventure story with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide.
The People in the Trees is the (fictional) memoir of A. Norton Perina, a renowned scientist and train wreck of a man who manages to be both extremely unlikable and compelling in telling his story. There is quite a lot I don't like about this book - which I'll get to later - but almost none of it is due to the way it's written. Perina's voice is clear and well-developed, but because it's also racist, sexist, and misanthropic, after a while it's more tiring than anything. Perina's attitude towards his colleagues, his research subjects, his brother, even his children, is obnoxiously derisive and dismissive. His constant disdain for the people and things around him - often unreasonable and always detailed explicitly - reminds me a little of Holden Caulfield, but not in any of the ways that make The Catcher in the Rye's narrator a good character.
Ostensibly, The People in the Trees is about the fallout caused by Perina's discovery of "immortality" among a remote Micronesian society. The time Perina spends on Ivu'ivu unraveling the mystery of the "dreamers" is interesting enough that I didn't mind the narrator's exasperating narcissism. The inevitable decline of the island and the fate of the dreamers is emotional, though only briefly detailed. This part of the book is probably eighty percent of the reason I'm giving it three stars.
After Perina's discoveries on the island force it into the Western world's spotlight, the book moves away from Ivu'ivu, the dreamers, and their "immortality." The themes of discovery and scientific ethics are abandoned, but the theme of moral ambiguity remains. Yanagihara explores the idea a little bit with the a'ina'ina ceremony on the island, and in that context it's thought-provoking and basically anthropological in nature.
In the interest of not giving away spoilers, I'm not going to do into much detail, but the moral ambiguity in questions concerns Perina allegedly raping at least one of his 43 children. Both Perina and his friend Kubodera, who narrates the introduction and epilogue, are extremely lax about the issue, even trying to pass it off as okay. Kubodera especially, remarking that whether or not Perina is guilty shouldn't matter because of his contributions to science, and even going so far as to propose that Perina raping his son was an act of pure, untainted love. Perina himself is unapologetic and even acts as if he's the one who's being victimized. Honestly, it just gets sickening towards the end. Exploring the idea of moral relativism with the Ivu'ivuan culture was provocative and poignant, but Yanagihara takes the idea much, much too far.
Most people, like me, would probably pick up The People in the Trees expecting an adventure story - complete with science, a mysterious disease, an unkown people, and terrible consqeuences - but instead they'll find the rather ugly and disquieting confessions of Perina. The People in the Trees is engaging mostly because of its portrayal of the lives Perina ruins or damages, whether they're his children's, the Ivu'ivuans', or the dreamers'. The only people I would feel comfortable recommending this book to would be budding anthropologists and psychologists, and I strongly urge anyone who reads this book to make sure they know what they're getting into.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.