In 1950, a young doctor, Norton Perina, signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile.
Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating consequences.
©2013 Hana Yanagihara (P)2013 Dreamscape Media, LLC
"Driven by Yanagihara's gorgeously complete imaginary ethnography on the one hand and, on the other, by her brilliantly detestable narrator, this debut novel is compelling on every level - morally, aesthetically, and narratively." (Publishers Weekly)
"Yanagihara presents a cautionary tale about what can happen when Western arrogance meets primeval culture." (Kirkus Reviews)
It begins with a quote from the Tempest’s Prospero: “A devil, a born devil, on who’s nature nurture can never stick, on whom my pains humanly taken all, all lost, quite lost.” From there to the very last paragraph, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees is a deeply unsettling, beautifully crafted narrative on the capricious nature of morality in science.
The novel opens with a news article detailing the trial of Nobel laureate, Dr. A. Norton Perina. Accused of sexual harassment and assault by one of his many adopted children, he languishes in jail, a convicted child molester in his early 70s after a celebrated career as an immunologist.
Perina’s protégé, Robert Kubodera, challenges the validity of this report claiming that the conviction was nothing short of familial betrayal. Kubodera has compiled (and edited) letters his mentor wrote during his imprisonment, and plans to publish a memoir which, he hopes, will exonerate the brilliant scientist in the eyes of the public.
What follows is the life story of Norton Perina – a man fascinating and repellant in equal measure. From a claustrophobic first person perspective, he coolly recounts his early life, education at Harvard, and eventual travel to a Micronesian island where he discovered the Opa’ivu’eke, a rare turtle capable of granting a flawed pseudo-immortality. The fallout of Perina’s discovery - the destruction of the indigenous way of life by an insatiable, myopic Western culture - is as predictable as it is tragic.
Yanagihara’s portrayal of monstrous genius should, by all logic, be off-putting but her prose and the East/West dichotomy evocative of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Orwell’s essays on India carry the reader into the thick Micronesian jungle and out again.
Perina makes a surprisingly compelling character, and the narrator – slightly effete, slightly disdainful – perfectly balances the amoral protagonist with the meticulous descriptions of a remote tribe. Kubodera regularly interrupts the novel (occasionally in mid-sentence) with footnotes, adding a unique, albeit biased, dimension to the storyline.
The People in the Trees is a magnificent debut from Yanagihara that I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for a poignant, unnerving, elegantly written work of literature.
I'm not sure that a person with any sense of reality will ever enjoy this book. This was, by far, the most disappointing book I've ever read and I wouldn't recommend it for anyone.
First of all, the title is very misleading because there is very little in this book about the discovery of the People in the Trees. The book should be more aptly titled "The Undoing of Norton" or something much like that because the majority of the book is really about the deranged professor. I kept listening because I was hoping that the next chapter would hold something worth waiting for, something of value that would redeem the professor. Alas, that never happened, and the worst that I thought turned out to be true.
There were multiple narrators and they all did a fine job with the material they were given.
I am very disappointed and honestly wish that I had just turned it off after the trip to the island where the people were discovered. This was a total waste of hours of my time because there was very little positive content in this story. I read from a diverse list of topics and genres, and I can typically find value in any book - but not this one.
This was an interesting story but more so a profile of a scientist who seems to have lost track of his moral compass. Exploration and discovery trump other considerations when intruding on a newly discovered culture. When the possibility of some ostracized members of this culture having attained a physical but not mental immortality or at least a long life arises Norton, the scientist narrator, pulls out all the stops in an attempt to figure out how they’ve attained such a state. Once word gets out and the pharmaceutical companies descend on the island paradise it is reduced to combed over rubble. Norton wins the Nobel while adopting a great many of the island's waifs. How he fares as a father and why he is imprisoned for going astray conclude the book. While clearly able to apply analysis in the scientific world, Norton lacks such perspicacity when examining his own actions.
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