“Today I am often torn, when telling this part of the story, between making apologies and not. I did not go to the island, as so many later did, to make money, or to try to convince one group of people to live and eat and believe as I did. I went for adventure, and with the pure hope of exploration. I did not go to destroy a people or a country, as I am so often accused of doing, as if such things are ever as frequent or intentional as assumed. Did I, however, end up doing so? It is not for me to decide. I did what any scientist would have done. And if I had to — even knowing what would become of Ivu’ivu and all its people — I would probably do so again.
Well, that is not wholly true: I would do so again. I would not even have to consider it for a moment.”
The People in the Trees is a tense tightrope walk into the dark realms of moral ambiguity. Framed as the memoir of Dr. Norton Perina, a once renowned scientist who is now disgraced and imprisoned, Yanagihara’s novel inhabits the murky gray area between right and wrong. She presents this story to us as if it’s Perina’s own words and through his words she chronicles his journey from young scientist in a futile lab to the great expedition that irrevocably changes his life and the world around him. In 1950, Perina and two explorers travel to the remote island of Ivu’ivu to examine and observe the group of forest dwellers who live there. Since the island is small and completely cut off from the world and all its advancements, it feels like a portal through time. Through weeks of observations and interviews with the tribe, the group discover the strange rituals and beliefs they uphold. At the heart of one such ritual is a life-altering medical marvel. Perina makes the decision, against the group's judgement, to bring this discovery back with him to America and although at first it proves to be the greatest success of his life, it also becomes his very downfall. The consequences of his actions reverberate through his life, the scientific community, and through all the people in Ivu’ivu.
In this dark anthropological thriller, Yanagihara delves deep into the subjects of scientific progress, colonialism, and white saviorism. Based on the real life medical researcher, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, she raises important questions about scientific progress vs. playing god and scientific progress vs. plundering the natural world. It’s a challenging and dark book that doesn’t leave its reader with any easy answers. It’s one that will also cause you to look around at our own world, marvel at all it’s vast advancements, and ask “but at what cost?”
What sets this mock memoir apart is that Yanagihara chooses to introduce it to us through the vessel of a longtime friend and colleague of Perina’s, Ronald Kubodera. Within the first couple of pages, Kubodera tells the reader that they do not care if Perina is in fact guilty of the heinous crime he is imprisoned for. What he cares about is that Perina’s great mind is being wasted away in prison. To keep Perina’s mind active, Kubodera suggests he write his memoir. Within Perina’s memoir, Kubodera acts as editor and provides footnotes with further insight into Perina’s side of the story. With this set up, Yanagihara takes the well worn trope of the unreliable narrator and makes it brand new. Not only are we reading the words of a narcissistic scientist who justifies his own actions with scientific necessity, but it’s presented to us with the notes of his biggest fan. It’s unlike any other unreliable narrator who uses outside crutches or vices to complicate their story (alcohol, drugs, etc.) because these men truly believe everything they are committing to paper is wholly right and rational. She takes this a step further by giving us an explorer on the expedition who serves as the moral foil to our protagonist, but the reader’s interpretation of her is continuously skewed by Perina’s critical descriptions of her. Any time she is mentioned, Perina immediately undercuts the reader’s view of her by describing her as overly emotional, unintelligent, and lacking the drive to do what is needed for scientific progress. Yanagihara makes it clear that even our moral compass in this story is controlled by Perina.
It’s hard not to compare this novel with Yanagihara’s second and more popular novel A Little Life, however I feel the way that the majority of readers do this is a great disservice to her debut. If you’ve read A Little Life and you seek out The People in the Trees because you want more of Yanagihara’s tearjerker writing, sweeping drama, and “stab you in the heart” feelings then you’ll be sorely disappointed. The People in the Trees is quieter, more haunting, and it gets under your skin in a way that makes you uneasy. A Little Life can be discussed at book clubs and among coffee dates with friends and you’ll exchange tissues as you cry over beloved Jude. But The People in the Trees in a book club setting would result in you uncomfortably shifting in your seat, awkwardly clearing your throat, and hoping someone else starts the discussion of what you all just experienced. But this is where the book shines. If you compare the two solely as a case study for empathy, you see a writer at the top of her craft. A Little Life is drenched in empathy, you can’t help but feel for Jude and his friends and that’s what makes it so moving. That’s what its lasting power is. It’s also the total lack of empathy that makes The People in the Trees so brilliant. Our narrator doesn’t truly feel for anyone but himself and it’s the stark reality of this that sets this book apart.
It’s profound the way Yanagihara can write this character and story in such a bewitching way that in the beginning, you can even find yourself agreeing with him. Condoning him. Either by the lush descriptions of the exotic jungle or the justifications in Norton’s words, you get swept up. It’s not until it all becomes so horrible that the realization finally sets in and you think “My god. Norton, what have you done?” To which he replies “Don’t you know? Haven’t you been here the whole time?”
The People in the Trees
By Hanya Yanagihara
476 pages. 2013.
Buy it here.