‘The People in the Trees’ by Hanya Yanagihara tells the story of Norton Perina, a graduate of Harvard Medical School who accompanies Paul Tallent on an anthropological expedition to Ivu’ivu, a remote Micronesian island. During their travels in the 1950s, they come across a native tribe known as the Dreamers, a group of islanders who are well over a hundred years old after consuming the meat of a sacred turtle. The discovery and subsequent experiments win Norton a Nobel Prize but they also have serious consequences for the island and its inhabitants.
‘The People in the Trees’ is half the length of Yanagihara’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted second novel A Little Life and has a very different setting but it is just as dark, densely written, controversial in its subject matter and, above all, memorable. Inspired by the true story of the virologist Dr Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, it opens with a news article detailing Norton’s arrest and conviction in the late 1990s for sexually abusing several of the native children he adopted after the expeditions. Perina then tells his side of the story about his time in U’ivu and what happened afterwards through the memoirs he has written during his prison sentence. Despite the early revelation of Norton’s conviction, his evasive account ensures that the exact circumstances of his crimes remain unclear until the very end.
The psychological insight into Norton’s moral ambiguity is startling and unsettling. Widely celebrated for his scientific achievements and intelligence, Norton is also tellingly arrogant, entirely lacking in empathy and even makes attempts to groom the reader towards his skewed view of the world. His memoirs reveal his callousness despite being “edited” by Ronald Kubodera, a devoted friend, former colleague and admirer of his work, raising further complex questions about bias and reliability.
Elsewhere, the culture, rituals, language and social structures of the islanders are rich in detail and brilliantly crafted. As well as the moral and ethical consequences for the native tribes, the ecological effects on the lush landscape of the island following the arrival of Western pharmaceutical companies are also explored through Norton’s unrepentant eyes.
I started reading ‘The People in the Trees’ with the assumption that it was unlikely to be any more brutal or provocative than ‘A Little Life’. However, by the end, I think the former may have had even more of an impact on me than the latter. Yanagihara has written Norton’s voice with chilling ambiguity throughout but it is the concluding chapters which are truly devastating right up until the very last page, indeed, the very last sentence.
‘The People in the Trees’ is not a book which will appeal to everyone. The way in which Norton rationalises his actions is reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Lolita and those who object to Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel will probably strongly object to this one too. However, I hope that the success of ‘A Little Life’ turns more readers towards Yanagihara’s debut novel and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.