The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 13 August 2013.

16126596As I read Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, I made notes of ideas as they occurred to me. At one point, I wrote that the fictional editor of this biography of fictional scientist, A. Norton Perina, had a Bosworthian level man-crush on his subjects. The book begins with a introduction by another scientist, Ronald Kubodera, giving the reader a hint that this is not just the story of a remarkable and impossible scientific discovery. Before Perina takes over narrator duties, Kubodera tells us that Perina is currently serving two years for the sexual assault of one of his adopted sons.


Kubodera’s editing provides one layer of frames. Perina himself provides the other. When writing even a nonfictional autobiography, the writer chooses what to reveal to their reader. They hide things and distort things and omit others. With another editor on top of that, you’re getting a book that you have to read between the lines more carefully than usual. With that in mind, Kubodera gives way to Perina. Perina writes about his childhood and his disgust of his possibly mentally impaired mother and lazy father. He develops a sense of superiority that he never loses. From his description, you might wonder what, if anything, redeems this character. And I have to be honest, nothing much. Even though I thought this book was incredible, it’s going to be hard to recommend to people.

Perina has a lack luster career in college, gaining a medical degree with almost zero interest in helping people. Instead, Perina wants to make a great discovery. He wants to make a difference. This might be the thing that could make Perina at least a respectable character if not actually likeable. It would, if it weren’t for the fact that Perina feels no empathy for anything. He’s often cruel. While reading about him dispatching lab animals, I had a hard time not quitting on the book. I stuck with the book because of the premise. Perina does get his chance to shine when he gets an offer to accompany two anthropologists to a remote South Pacific island to search for a potentially undiscovered tribe. The expedition does find that tribe, only to find out that some members can live for over a century after eating the meat of a rare turtle. Because of this discovery, Perina goes on to win a Nobel Prize.

The novel goes on to talk about how the island and its people are destroyed by pharmaceutical companies looking for the secret to immortal life. Perina eventually gets around to talking about the scores of children he adopts from the formerly idyllic Pacific island nation and to the events that lead to his imprisonment. I won’t reveal the twist at the end. Not only would it ruin the ending, but I’m still not sure what I think about it. What I did like about this book, apart from the skillful way it was written, is that it brings up so many meaty ethical and philosophical dilemmas to ponder. Some readers might thing it’s heavy handed, but I didn’t. Sometimes points need to be made with a sharp slap to the frontal cortex.

It’s a good thing to read a vexed book every now and then.