Last year, I read and was utterly awestruck by Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life. As I wrote in my review, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. So it was with great excitement that I dove into her first novel, published two years earlier, a novel that promised to be an interesting and riveting kind of anthropological adventure tale with a healthy dose of sciencey nerdliness.
As I briefly read in snippets of reviews and on the book’s backside, The People in the Trees would be a tale about a brilliant scientist named Norton Perina who discovers an isolated tribe of indigenous folk on a remote Micronesian island who are apparently immortal owing to their practice of consuming a certain animal’s flesh. Of course, there promised to be a dark side to all of this, as the immortality achieved causes the body to persist while the mind goes on deteriorating like it normally would. And of course, there would be consequences both profound and dire.
Okay, so I was kind of hooked, and I dove in.
The novel begins with a couple of news articles about Dr. Norton Perina’s recent arrest on charges of rape and child endangerment. What? This was a weird twist, right out of the gate. Next, there is a preface written from the perspective of a Dr. Ronald Kubodera, as he ruminates on the recent tribulations of his formerly esteemed colleague and friend.
This is followed by the true beginning of the novel’s direct chronological narrative, presented as Perina’s memoir, written in first person, as edited by Dr. Kubodera, which will presumably tell us about how he discovered the secret to physical immortality on a remote Pacific island and then maybe became a child rapist. Throughout, there are ample and oftentimes lengthy footnotes from Kubodera, giving the whole thing this kind of mock-academic texture and feel.
And it’s interesting and even at times riveting, the tale of this young ambitious academic who accepts this crazy assignment to head out to Micronesia—specifically to the island of Ivu’ivu—with a well-known anthropologist named Paul Tallent to study the culture of the Ivu’ivuan people. And it becomes even more riveting as there’s a rivalry that develops between the young Perina and Esme, another young protégé of Tallent’s, specifically over how to deal with some specific aspects of Ivu’ivuan culture that are particularly incompatible with Western mores.
Now, in the background of all of this hangs the curiosity imbued in the reader by the book’s opening passages about whether this guy is going to become a child rapist, and how exactly, and why. It’s an odd effect, I must admit. The story would be perfectly interesting and compelling without the creepy sheen of possible rapey-ness afoot, but it’s there, an undeniable part of the fabric of the novel, and Yanagihara creates all manner of little suggestive moments throughout the book where the reader can’t help but think, “Oh shit, here it comes, here’s where he goes astray,” but then it turns out it’s just an odd little moment about how our protagonist finds his own brother weirdly gorgeous, or finds himself physically attracted to one of his professors, or waxes on a little too at length about the stark beauty of an Ivu’ivuan boy, and yet nothing substantive develops.
Let me step back here and say that I’m truly not sure how I feel about this book. Plainly, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I did A Little Life, but I did like it. Also, though, I rather disliked it, specifically insofar as what drew me to it in the first place was the thought of reading a kind of warm, island-based adventure-type tale—the type of story containing some element that reminded me of my childhood love of reading—but what I discovered instead was this weird, maybe-rapey thing coursing all through the story, which was otherwise pleasant.
And then—spoiler alert—after the story in which it’s still not absolutely clear whether or not our protagonist is actually a rapist, there’s this postscript that Dr. Kubodera, the editor of Perina’s “memoir,” kept omitted from the main text of the novel but which is here included at the very end, and which, to my utter horror, contains a plain and unapologetic account from Perina’s perspective of how he did in fact rape several of his own adopted children. It’s awful stuff, and it served, in my experience, to only underscore and drive home all of the things I didn’t enjoy about reading the book; it confirmed all the creepy suspicious details that Yanagihara placed throughout the novel, and did so harshly and uncompromisingly.
Incidentally, it’s all based on the true story of Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who won a Nobel Prize in 1976 for his work identifying some rare disease among a tribe of folks in Papua New Guinea. He also served time in prison for raping several of his 56 adopted children.
So, in conclusion, I’m not sure whether I’d recommend this one. It’s beautiful and suspenseful. It’s compelling in the unfolding of its straightforward story, and it’s interesting in terms of its novel, scientific subject matter, but it’s all got a thick coating of psychological icky-ness, which is later, as I’ve said, solidified into some truly terrible horror. So I enjoyed reading it, but I kind of cringed throughout, and its gotcha-type ending, rather than leaving me stunned or awed at the cleverness of the trick the author had pulled, just left me feeling rather disgusted.