The People in the Trees
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“. . . a poignant, edgy story . . .”
Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel, “The People in the Trees,” confronts how the search for scientific knowledge can trigger ecological and societal destruction. On a mythical Micronesian island, scientists from pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies denude a forest and destroy a village culture in search of a turtle, the key to immortality.
As a young physician in 1950, Norton Perina joins anthropologist Paul Tallent on an expedition to the island of Ivu’Ivu near Tahiti to document the existence of a newly discovered tribe. On their journey to the village, they encounter people wandering the forest who Perina names “the dreamers,” and who appear mentally disconnected. His medical examination reveals they are physically fit but quite old, perhaps hundreds of years.
After months of village life observation, Perina determines those rare tribal members who reach age 60 are required to feast on a turtle (a mythical tale is revealed about the turtle). Perina concludes the turtles in a hidden lake are key to their longevity. In an blatantly unethical move, Perina steals a turtle, kills it and brings portions back to the lab. He also convinces Tallent to allow him to haul off four of the “dreamers” who ultimately are housed in Perina’s lab and constantly have to undergo tests to prove his theory.
After Perina wins the Nobel Prize in 1974 for his discovery, swarms of scientists and entrepreneurs invade the island. Either by guilt or selfishness, Perina returns numerous times, adopting 46 abandoned children. Yanagihara’s story begins with Perina serving a prison term for sexually assaulting his adopted children, strikingly similar to the true tale of 1976 Nobel Prize-winner Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who uncovered a fatal disease in Papua, New Guinea. He also had adopted dozens of children and was subsequently jailed for sexual assault.
Yanagihara evokes complex emotions, sympathy and disgust with Perina, a devoted scientist who emerges as a caring person. It is a cliffhanger as it is unclear if Perina has been unfairly judged and is actually innocent. Her lavish descriptions of the island conjure sympathy for the tribe and their connections to their environment, all part of a poignant, edgy story with troubling insight into human nature.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla