The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara – Jo’s Book Blog

It is 1950 when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a supposed lost tribe. There he meets a strange group of forest dwellers who seem to have achieved a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina discovers his secret and returns with him to America, where she soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.


the people in the trees is the first novel by Hanya Yanagihara, an author I discovered after the publication of the absolutely superb a little life. This novel is quite different, and while it is a work of fiction, it is loosely based on the life of scientist and convicted sex offender Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. It’s worth noting that there are elements of child abuse in the novel and some readers may want to avoid it for that reason.

The novel has a fairly simple structure. It begins with a newspaper clipping detailing the accusations made against Norton Perina by a child in his care. Accused and imprisoned, Perina’s friend and colleague Ronald Kubodera encourages him to take advantage of this time to write his biography. This forms the bulk of the novel, as we read the manuscript with Kubodera as he edits it, adding footnotes to explain Perina’s comments where necessary. To me, this raises questions as to reliability. Clearly, Kubodera still supports Perina despite his arrest, so I couldn’t help but wonder if he might also want to keep things from me. With that being said, Perina is introduced to what appears to be brutally honest and doesn’t come across as sympathetic at all.

This is not helped by the accusation of sexual assault that confronts the reader against Perina immediately, and the story of her life -from her childhood- does her few favors since she is arrogant and condescending, putting herself above all those. she is found Her first trip to Ivu’ivu and enabling research that eventually leads to a Nobel Prize shows blatant disregard for her more experienced colleague whom she promptly fires, determined to usurp her position on the expedition. He works to achieve his own goals throughout the journey without thinking about the goals of the expedition or the consequences of his actions. He returns to these islands repeatedly over the years, and perhaps develops a sense of guilt over time as he witnesses the islands change, but I also think he likes to revisit the moment of his discovery that ultimately made him famous. . There is a sense of arrogance and even if he hadn’t known of his eventual downfall, he would have suspected it.

“I did what any scientist would have done. And if he had to do it, even knowing what would become of Ivu’ivu and all of his people, he would probably do it again.
Well, that’s not entirely true: I would do it again. She wouldn’t even have to consider it for a moment.”

Yanagihara is seen as the impact that the discovery of Perina has on this previously untouched little Eden as scientists, corporations and missionaries descend on these islands and the native population in a sickening and all too plausible way. Trees are cut down to accommodate these immigrants with natural habitats destroyed and ecosystems devastated, all abusing the natural habitat for their own gain and benefit. And Perina feels no remorse for taking part in this: he is not directly responsible for the devastation, and yet it is he, more than anyone else, who highlights the potential of the natural resources on these islands and whose work brings others there and that results in this. destruction.

One element the novel explores is the separation of art from artist, or in this case science from scientist. Perina is a doctor and a Nobel laureate, and the accusations and his arrest serve as a reminder that few are perfect. Kubodera supports him throughout and seems willing to look past the claims against Perina. While it may be that he just doesn’t believe the accusations that have been leveled at him, I think he goes deeper than that. Kubodera argues that Perina should be above such accusations, as his work and development in science have been so important that he should essentially be allowed a “get out of jail free” card. Of course, we don’t know for sure whether the accusations are true until the end of the novel, and this introduces an element of doubt: the question that there is no smoke without fire faces the possibility of an unjust accusation. However, I think few would support Kubodera’s stance, and his perspective makes it seem sycophantic in his regard for Perina’s fall from grace.

A state that led to an unnaturally long life: an immortal life. But it was a parody of immortality, because while the afflicted were physically frozen… their minds were not. Little by little, it disintegrated, first memory, then social nuances, then senses, and finally speech, until all that was left was the body. The mind was gone, worn by the years

Perina’s work focuses on a form of immortality that she discovers on this island, and it is something that I found very suggestive. The idea of ​​immortality and eternal youth is, of course, tempting, but at what price? Perina discovers that the people of Ivu’ivu have, by chance, discovered a way to live an abnormally long life and preserve their health and strength. But their minds still age normally, eventually deteriorating to the point where these individuals no longer function as humans. While many may have thought of the benefits of living forever or keeping your youthful face, it’s a high price to pay and sounds more like a curse than a gift.

the people in the trees will not be for everyone, and it is a very different novel than a little life, but I found it an incredibly stimulating read. It feels relevant in its focus on big-name people coming across as monsters under their guise of respectability and highlights the devastation of natural habitats by greed and profit that inevitably leads to climate change.

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