The People in the Trees
First of all, I have to start by saying I simply cannot believe this is Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel. Holy crap!
The People in the Trees is an imaginative work, to say the very least. To say the most, it’s the best debut novel I think I’ve ever read. Talk about coming out of the gate strong. Yanagihara has not only created a complex and fully realized protagonist, but also an entire fictional culture. Norton Perina is fresh out of med school when he signs up to join anthropologist Paul Tallent on an expedition to the remote island of Ivu’ivu in search of a lost tribe. The adventure doesn’t stop, however, when they actually find this tribe; instead another mystery begins. It turns out certain members of the tribe have been alive for an impossibly long time, the oldest being around 200 years old. Norton’s discovery and subsequent publications as to the cause of their prolonged life spans eventually leads to the decimation of the island and its culture. In the wake of his fame, he has a falling out with Tallent and this combined with a sense of guilt about the current state of Ivu’ivu leads Norton to begin collecting unwanted children and raising them as his own. Eventually, one of his children accuses him of sexual abuse, of which he is convicted and sent to prison.
The novel is told from Norton’s point of view, but is comprised of his communications from prison with his only remaining friend. This friend and former colleague, Robert Kubodera, has encouraged Norton to write to him the memoirs he had always planned on penning. He collects and edits these, presumably without Norton’s knowledge, with the intention of publishing it to show the world Norton’s side of the story. This layer adds another interesting element, as not only is the narrator biased but also the editor. This makes the ending a real shock to the system, one the reader will possibly sit with for quite some time.
Not only is this an unbelievable imaginative achievement, this book calls society out for many of its fatal flaws. Capitalist greed, colonization, and even human nature in general all get a harsh light shined upon them. The effect of Norton’s discovery on the island is indeed heartbreaking. This vibrant culture that Yanagihara created is completely destroyed by the end of the novel. The ceremonies and mythologies are completely abandoned in favor of Western ideologies and obsessions, including but not limited to alcohol and junk food. It’s not surprising that many people blamed Norton for what happened, but it’s also pretty clear that he didn’t set out to destroy these people. He feels some modicum of guilt, even if he never fully admits it to anyone.
Norton Perina is a truly remarkable protagonist. Since the novel starts with him writing from prison having been convicted of sexually abusing a minor, I started off apprehensive. I tried to wait to find out if he really did it or not, but the knowledge that it was coming definitely tainted his story from the beginning. I was astonished to find midway through the novel that I had almost forgotten about the accusations completely. Norton begins his story from the very top, covering his childhood all the way through medical school and then to the expedition that would change his life. By the time we reached the part where he starts adopting kids, I was almost entirely convinced he might have been simply misunderstood. It is clear that he doesn’t think the way most people do, he is hyper-intellectual and in that vein everything is a matter of logic and reason to him. However, he does still struggle with feelings of loneliness, and possibly latent homosexuality, as he is nearly incapable of connecting to people. But even these struggles become intellectualized, he never names himself as lonely but he recognizes that that must be what he is experiencing. In the end the reader truly has to make up their own mind about him: Does one (truly ugly and heinous) fault tip the scale of a person from good to evil?
I can’t wait to read what Hanya Yanagihara has next, because she is one seriously talented writer. The People in the Trees is a novel that lives with the reader well after the last page is read.
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