The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara is most well-known for her novel A Little Life that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. In The People in the Trees she turns to similar themes of A Little Life – child abuse – although the setting is world’s away from the city landscape of New York.
Hanya Yanagihara was partly inspired by the true story of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek who was revered in the scientific community before being accused of child molestation. In her novel Norton Perina accompanies an anthropological expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a lost tribe in the 1950s. They discover the tribe, but also a group of forest-dwellers expelled from the tribe that they refer to as ‘The Dreamers’ who live to a fantastical old age, but who become increasingly senile. Perina discovers that source of their longevity is a rare turtle – so he kills one and smuggles the meat back to the States. He proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize. With repeated visits back to the island he begins adopting local children, offering them a ‘better’ life with him in America, as the life they once knew crumbles with the influx of so many scientists wanting to find the turtles that promise everlasting life.
But in the late 1990s Dr. Ronald Kubodera, a colleague of Perina who is besotted with him, mourns Norton's downfall after his conviction of sexually abusing his children. Kubodera encourages Norton to write his memoirs from his prison isolation and marks them with footnotes.
The People in the Trees is a well-written book, but one of the strangest stories I have ever read. It’s shocking, at times amazing, at other times I found some of the descriptions of the island and its culture to be revolting. This is a book that doesn’t want to be liked, as it explores themes of scientific hubris, colonisation and abuse of children. As Perina argues his case with the help of his friend in his memoir, is he a well-meaning innocent or a dangerous sociopath? Is he a genius or a criminal? Throughout the book, I erred one way and then another, with all being revealed in the final chapter. This is an ugly book in so many ways – the unlikeable characters, the underlying premise, the descriptions of life on the island, but also a thought-provoking and brilliant book at the same time. Read this and be prepared to be challenged.
Reviewer: Karen McMillan
Macmillan, RRP $37.77