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March 4, 2019 | by  | in Books |
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The People in the Trees

Some spoilers included. CW: Rape, Paedophilia


After reading and greatly enjoying Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I found myself approaching The People In The Trees (her first, and only other book) with a sense of apprehension. I struggled to imagine how Yanagihara would explore a different world and move away from a narrative voice that felt so distinctive in A Little Life. I wondered if perhaps The People In The Trees would be but a less compelling precursor to her later, more widely appraised book. I found myself proven wrong—a sensation I quickly became familiar with while reading this novel.


In a brutally succinct news article on the very first page, Yanagihara calmly reveals the dark and ugly crux of the story. It is here that she also engrosses the reader in the moral dilemma that is to unravel throughout the novel: Our protagonist, Norton Perina, is a Nobel Prize-winning doctor, revered for his study of the (fictional) Ivu’ivuans, a “lost tribe” residing on a small Micronesian island. This leads to his discovery of a turtle, that, when consumed, freezes the body in a youthful and healthy state, though it does not avoid the mental deterioration that accompanies ageing. After his discovery, Perina continues to revisit the island and adopts Ivu’ivuian children. He is later convicted of the sexual assault of one of these children.


We are two pages in, and Yanagihara has already told us what has happened. What we have not been told is how. By laying bare the bones of the plot from the very start, Yanagihara plunges the reader head-first into a tangle of questions and carefully constructed expectations. We begin this book wondering if perhaps it has all been a misunderstanding. We are encouraged to think that this story will be the exoneration of Perina. It is instinctive to empathise with the narrator and Yanagihara knows this. The rest of the book is then spent dismantling our expectations.


The premise of the book evokes a classic story of adventure and exploration: a lost tribe, the promise of eternal life, an every-man doctor with dreams of success and glory. Despite these shiny plot points, this is not a book about adventure or any noble scientific quest. Yanagihara’s story is about power. To be specific, the way in which power—the power of men, the power of ‘science’ and the power of white imperialism—is exerted and abused. This is a story where ‘science’ and progress are used as justification for the exploitation of indigenous people and land. But rather than stopping at Perina’s groundbreaking scientific discovery, Yanagihara makes us stay, forcing us to bear witness to the devastating harm that inevitably follows.


What’s more, she does it all effortlessly—slipping into the narrative voice of Perina so easily and convincingly, it is almost unsettling. In a skillful change from the generous and detailed prose of A Little Life, Yanagihara writes here from the clear and clinical perspective of a scientist (albeit a very eloquent one). She uses the classic trope of the unreliable narrator and she uses it well—slowly revealing Perina’s character flaws and giving the reader ample space to hold on to the benefit of the doubt.


The People In The Trees is an excellent book. The story is in itself is creative and compelling, but what is most memorable is the way it implicates the reader in the moral quandary it explores. As macabre as it is, it would be wrong to say that Yanagihara is not playful. If anything, it often feels as though she is laughing gleefully as she drags you along. She knows what she’s doing and she knows that she is good at it, too.

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