The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees Hanya Yanagihara‘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.


Filed under Books

29 responses to “The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I’ve met several Yanagihara fans who have warned me about how unsettling and dark The People in the Trees was even compared to A Little Life. One of these days I will read the latter, but its length keeps me at bay. Perhaps I should try her first book to get a taste of her writing style and the tone of her writing. I’m still not sure which I will read first but I can’t shy away from dark but deeply important and relevant books for too long.
    Thanks for the review, I hadn’t read any for this book before, so now I have a better idea of what it’s about.


    • Thanks, yes it surprised me too. I don’t think it really matters which one you read first as they are very different books but I can see how the length of A Little Life might be daunting so perhaps try The People in the Trees first?


  2. Amazing Review 🙂 I desparaetly need to check Yanagihara’s books

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very much on my TBR list, but right now I am reading the Man Booker longlist, am waiting to receive 3 more titles at least, so too occupied to diverge.


  4. I’ve read The People In the Trees, but not A Little Life. I thought The People in the Trees was so well done! I almost feel like it would be hard to top it. I’m also curious to know what she’s going to write next!


  5. Ola

    After reading A Little Life I immediately check out if the author have written anything else. This book is on my TBR, and now I need to bump it up on my to buy list.


  6. Thanks for this review. This book is now on my to be read list!


  7. I’ve got this book because A Little Life was extraordinary but I’ve been warned it’s not easy reading, so waiting for the right moment.


  8. What a great review, every time your post made me think of a question about the novel, you answered it. I can’t wait to begin reading Yanagihara, but need to psych myself up for it.


  9. Really enjoyed this book review! I love your blog as well! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Sounds good. I guess challenging but must be all the more memorable for it. I think I will go and buy now!


  11. I read this after reading and loving A Little Life – thought it was incredible, so gripping and interesting and dark and clever. Great review!


  12. I had this on my TBR after you recommended it. The cover suggests that you will want to read it again. Actually, I felt that about A Little Life. This is an astonishing first novel. Dark in a different way and also deeply unsettling, but as a feat of imagination completely awesome. The tone of the memoir and the footnotes being so stylistically different, the anthropological detail and the imaginary island, so deftly handled. Amazing.
    I am always so impressed with your posts and thankful for their insightful, inspiring suggestions.


  13. Nice review. It’s a great novel. She’s one of the best around.


  14. Hi Clare, I just read this book and did a review on my blog. At one point i quoted you regarding Norton’s personality bit, with your name and a link back to your blog of course… if it is not OK, please let me know and I will remove that bit from my review. Here’s a link to what I wrote —


  15. Pingback: My Books of the Year 2016 | A Little Blog of Books

  16. I read ‘A Little Life’ two years ago and LOVED it. I must read this one soon! Great review btw!


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