Publisher’s Synopsis: In 1950, a young doctor named Norton Perina embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumored lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.
Disquieting yet thrilling, The People in the Trees is an anthropological adventure story with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide. It marks the debut of a remarkable new voice in American fiction.
I’m going to be completely up-front here: this isn’t a book for everyone. It is in turns eerie, disturbing, introspective, and cynical. I wouldn’t call it a pleasant read. That being said, I’m very glad that I read it.
It’s fairly well-established here that I love an unreliable narrator, and The People in the Trees has two: Dr. Perina’s story is recounted through his memoirs, which he has written while imprisoned for sexual abuse and sent to his good friend Ronald Kubodera, who sings his praises and maintains his innocence. Furthermore, Kubodera uses the introduction as an opportunity to admit that he will edit and remove passages from Pernia’s memoirs. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.
I first heard about The People in the Trees in passing through the Books on the Nightstand podcast, and I think that I had a wrong impression of it. It had seemed to me as though this would be a scary novel. While it was certainly disquieting, even creepy at times, I wouldn’t call it scary. There was an element of psychological thrill; the reader spends most of the book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Yanagihara does a commendable job of building an intangible suspense – not only are you now sure exactly what you’re waiting for, you’re not sure that you want to find out either.
Since we see everyone and everything in this novel through the Norton/Kubodera filter, the characters all seem to be constructed as merely supports for Norton’s story. In another context, that would bother me, but it works well here. Norton is not a sympathetic character, but as a reader, I found myself more or less agreeing with his impressions of the other characters. The way that Yanagihara persuades the reader to see entirely through this man’s eyes is what makes this novel at once so brilliant and so disturbing.
Without revealing too much, this is a story rife with moral relativism. It unflinchingly examines colonialism, biomedical ethics, society’s obsession with youth, charity, and the entire discipline of academia. It also happens to contain one of the best descriptions of the scientific process that I’ve ever seen. It is also based on the true story of Nobel Prize Recipient and convicted child molester Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. It’s neither a light nor an easy read, but it’s thought-provoking in the extreme. I highly recommend it.