“Language has no inherent secrets.”
The People in the Trees is so much wow, I don’t even know where to begin. This is Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel and it took her twenty years to write. It begins with news articles from the mid-1990s about Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, or Norton, as we will soon learn to call him. He is a Nobel Prize winning scientist for his research done on a remote island in the 1950s-1960s; he also is well-known for adopting 43 cast-off children from the island and raising them as his own in his Bethesda, Maryland home. But then he is shockingly arrested in 1995 for the sexual assault of one of his adopted children.
During his subsequent imprisonment, Norton is asked by his adoring colleague Dr. Ronald Kubodera–who appears to be Norton’s only remaining supporter–to write down his memoirs, which Dr. Kubodera will edit with the intent of telling the true side of this debacle. The majority of the novel is a five-part memoir of Norton’s life with most of it focusing on his time in 1950 when he first arrives at a remote island to search for a lost tribe. While on the island, he and his comrades discover a tribe of people who appear not to age past 60 years. Some of them are predicted to be over 100 years old, perhaps, even well over 200. As Norton discovers what could be doing this, a horrifying outcome of immortality is also unearthed: “I knew that this form of eternal life was horribly compromised.”
What Yanagihara does so well is to leave the readers constantly questioning themselves while reading Norton’s memoir. How could all of this decades’ worth of information be important? It is vastly intriguing, but how could an exploration in 1950 lead to sexual assault forty years later? Everything is so connected and Norton’s arrogance has one questioning what is legitimate or what has been filtered with heavy opinion. And, at times, I must admit, I found myself manipulated to Norton’s side. Even having the memoir edited with fascinating footnotes from Dr. Kubodera scattered through, you can never shake the feeling that something is being hidden deep within the pages just like the tribe hidden deep underneath the cover of that dark jungle Norton describes.
Yanagihara is also quite impressive in the way she has created this imaginary island nation with a whole language onto itself. I never once questioned her science and linguistic imaginings. Even after finishing the book, the entire twisted adventure stays with me. The novel, even until the last page, has the reader on their toes. The final pages had me astonished. How had Yanagihara have me so believing Norton at some times and disbelieving his narration at others? The final pages are shocking and once you close the book, you’ll be wishing you could bottle that haunted and complex feeling you had while reading The People in the Trees. Norton was a character to both sympathize with and look upon with disdain. As the story spirals, you’ll have your doubts and suspicions about this dark tale. With every new page, I felt like I was falling deeper down the rabbit hole and relished in those moments. Curious and curiouser…
There are two very interesting short Q&As with Hanya Yanagihara that you should peruse after reading the book:
- Publishers Weekly Books Are Broken-Limbed Baby Dolls: PW Talks with Hanya Yanagihara
- Vogue Talking with Hanya Yanagihara About Her Debut Novel