Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees CoverThe People in the Trees [2013] – ★★★★1/2  

The People in the Trees is a debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara, a writer now best known for her second book A Little Life, a 2015 Man Booker Prize nominee. The People in the Trees is partly an anthropological travelogue, partly a jungle adventure mystery, and party a covert character study, having enough disturbing elements to make its readers feel uncomfortable and even indignant about the content. However, these do not make the book any less masterful. Beautifully-written, The People in the Trees reads for the most part like a memoir/diary detailing Dr Norton Perina’s travel to an isolated Micronesian island country in the 1950s to find and study a “lost tribe”. He did so alongside a talented anthropologist Dr Tallent (who is himself a mystery) and Tallent’s colleague Esme Duff. The mysteries Perina uncovers on the island are shockingly significant, revolutionising what is known about science/medicine and having to do with immortality. Yanagihara fuses pseudo-factual scientific writings with some fantastic elements to rather impressive results, and it all would have been rather delightful and pleasing if the content were not also so devastatingly horrific. The only thing that lets this ambitious book down is that Yanagihara cannot quite manage to strike a balance or make a smooth transition between the book passages that detail the implications of Perina’s island discovery and later elements which deal with Perina’s own character insights.

Hanya Yanagihara based her novel on a real case of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, an American medical researcher who was known for his work on Kuru, a rare incurable neurodegenerative disorder that affected people of Papua New Guinea, and who was convicted for child molestation in 1996. Yanagihara starts her novel at the end with some shocking newspaper articles detailing the charges against Dr Perina. The famous scientist, who was the winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his identification of the Selene syndrome (a form of immortality where the body does not deteriorate but the mind does), was charged with sexual abuse. What follows is Perina’s own memoir detailing the events from his childhood and his travels in the 1950s to the Micronesian states of U’ivu and Ivu’ivu to study “lost people, a microsociety of sixty-six that had never been studied before” [Yanagihara, 2013: 159]. Dr Tallent, the head of the mission to U’ivu, was basing his hopeless expedition on one myth, searching a curious group of people with some mysterious condition.  

As a travelogue detailing one terra incognita and wonderful discoveries there, The People in the Trees is as interesting as any book on such a topic can be. Perina, Tallent and Duff find themselves in the land “where none of…things happen the way they [are] supposed to” [Yanagihara, 2013: 108], and the trio encounter unusual fauna and flora, such as a vuaka, a special kind of monkey. They also get lost in the multitude of odd behaviour of the inhabitants of the islands. Soon, the islands reveal more and more surprising qualities to the point where fantasy becomes an acceptable fact. Yanagihara’s talent for fusing science and fantasy is evident, and the footnotes provide realism to underpin the outrageous claims. The myth of the U’ivu island is based on many ideas, among which is a special kind of turtle Opa’ivu‘eke, which can grant people certain gifts, including immortality. But is there truth to these claims?

Thought-provoking issues touched upon in the novel include morality and scientific experiments, abuse of power, moral relativism and speciesism. Exploitation of people and natural resources for personal glory or money-making is another theme. In the study of anthropology, there is the concept of a cultural bias, which involves analysing and judging phenomena by standards found in one’s own culture, and that is also something The People in the Trees tries to point out as the trio of white and privileged researchers set their sights on discovering and studying people in primordial environment.

The novel is written almost with a side purpose to unnerve and even displease, and it becomes hard to associate oneself with the memoir narrator. The clever aspect of the book is that it contains unreliable narrators and contradicting character information. Dr Perina, in particular, becomes a person worthy of any Freudian psychoanalysis, and there is a contrast drawn between him and Dr Tallent, an anthropologist. Like such books as The Talented Mr Ripley [1955], The Secret History [1992] and later The Bedlam Stacks [2017], The People in the Trees just cannot bypass an opportunity to show male friendship in an intriguing way where one of the friends harbours a secret admiration for another. Perina is also compared to his twin brother Owen (his “ambassador to the world outside [his] own”) [Yanagihara, 2013: 42]. Unlike Norton Perina, Owen Perina is into literature and the English language. If Perina grows more practical, his brother remains more idealistic, even though there is still this usual “twins” competition between them and the kind of a relationship only they can understand.

Yanagihara’s last two chapters in this book contrast with the rest of the book and that makes for a rather perplexing read, because the story is not longer about the tribes, and the scientific discoveries and their implications, but about Perina’s adoption of children. These last two chapters may as well have been from another book, and there is no smooth transition between the two, for example, in terms of a clear connection between jungle myths and later events.  

The People in the Trees is a bit too “cold”, a bit too rambling, and a bit too predictable, but it is also a literary debut which is of an impressively high calibre. The writing is amazingly fluid, engaging and confident, and the mystery story/exciting exploration, including all the character studies, are fascinating and intriguing in all their morbid and disturbing shading.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. Sounds like an interesting premise. Too bad it doesn’t quite deliver. I didn’t love A Little Life as much as so many others seem to though it’s easy to see the talent this author has.

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