The People in the Trees is the debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara (author of A Little Life). Published by Atlantic Books, it is the fictional memoir of Norton Perina, an unlikeable scientist who has made incredible discoveries, and incredible mistakes.
I’ve written this review about a dozen times, and I know I’m not going to get it right. This is not an easy book, and consequently I don’t have any easy thoughts. This is the best I can do, I’m afraid. If you’ve read the book, please comment, because I know that there are hundreds of other things I could say about it that I just don’t have the words for at the moment.
Even though Yanagihara’s prose is lush and thick and beautiful, there is nowhere to hide in this novel. The modern person’s Heart of Darkness, it follows Perina as he makes groundbreaking scientific discoveries about the people of Ivu’ivu, who have incredibly prolonged lives. There are some extremely thought-provoking discussions about colonisation and the morality of scientific enquiry. However, in my mind, this is quite secondary. The novel begins with the imprisonment of Perina, as he has been accused of pedophilia. Rape and pedophilia continue to be prevalent throughout the novel, as Perina watches an Ivu’ivu ceremony in which a young boy is raped by the male members of his tribe as an initiation into adulthood.
Yanagihara doesn’t blunder into such controversial topics without thought – she writes about the difference between cultural norms and abuses in a way that I can only applaud. And I know that The People in the Trees is supposed to unsettle. Much like Nabakov’s Lolita, you are not supposed to go into it looking for a gentle or easy read, however beautiful the prose might be. However, through the discussion of rape, and the character of Perina himself, I found there were some insidious links between Perina’s (presumed) homosexuality and his eventual sexual abuse of one of his adopted Ivu’ivu children. I had to force myself to finish it after this.
I’ll be honest, if I had known what the novel was about, I don’t know if I would have read it. Literature is supposed to provoke and unsettle and raise the most difficult of life’s questions, but…this. The People in the Trees is undoubtedly a masterpiece of modern literature. But I’m not going to be reading it again.