Review: The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara

OH MY GOD Y’ALL, THIS BOOK. Don’t let me get your expectations up so high that you can’t enjoy it but like, OH MY GOD THIS BOOK, there are not an adequate number of words in my brain box to describe my feelings about this book right here. The People in the Trees is startling. Not startling in a plot way, but startling in the way that was like I had never read a book before and was reading my very first one right now.

The People in the Trees admittedly hits a lot of sweet spots for me: a well-imagined fictional world (the science and the places in this book are all imaginary); an audacious premise (a Micronesian tribe seems to have attained something like immortality, though at a terrible cost) treated with utmost seriousness; an unreliable narrator (Norton Perina, the scientist who discovered and published on this immortality phenomenon, is writing his memoirs); an abundance of footnotes (by a staunch admirer of Perina, also an unreliable narrator, who is editing the memoirs); and a grand profusion of ethical questions.

Perina, who is loosely based on Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, is writing his memoirs from a jail cell, where he is serving a two year sentence on charges of sexually assaulting one of his adopted Micronesian children. Before his disgrace, he was one of the most renowned and respected scientists in America for his discovery of Selene syndrome: a condition, apparently occasioned by the consumption of a particular kind of meat indigenous to the Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, in which human lifespans are extended to as much as six times their natural length, while mental capacity becomes more and more diminished.

It’s quickly, though not crudely, obvious that Perina is a nasty piece of work, a man who simply doesn’t bother himself much about anyone around him. He’s not trying to justify himself because he’s loftily serene in his righteousness. He speaks of having regrets, yet says that he wouldn’t — couldn’t — have done anything differently. The discovery of Selene syndrome, as you might expect, has massive environmental and social consequences for Ivu’ivu, as hordes of Western scientists and pharmaceutical companies (and eventually missionaries) descend on the island. In his later years, Perina begins to bring home abandoned Ivu’ivuan children, hordes of them, a total of 43 — including Victor, whose accusations of sexual assault lead to Perina’s eventual fall from grace.

What can I say about The People in the Trees? It is a book with presence. From the first few pages it forces you to sit up and take notice. I think the last time I read a debut novel with this level of assurance and originality was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Comparisons will inevitably be made to Nabokov, both to Lolita and to Pale Fire, and as high as compliment as that is to The People in the Trees, it’s a not-inconsiderable compliment to Nabokov as well.

This book right here, you guys, it rocked me like a southbound train. Three days after reading it, I still haven’t been able to read anything new. I just want to sit with The People in the Trees and think about it and reread parts of it and talk about it to everyone. (Seriously. Ask my friends-and-relations. I have not been able to shut up about this book.)

Okay! In descending order of how certain I feel that y’all will love it: Eva, Vasilly, Proper Jenny and Teresa, Aarti, and Ana, you should read this book please. It’s all about like colonization and guilt and appropriation and ethics and science! Read it, read it! (Jill, I just am not sure. I can see you loving this, but I can also see you really, really, super hating it. Use your judgment, I guess?)

American (hard)cover

American (hard)cover

British cover

British cover

American paperback

American paperback

Cover report: Between the US and UK paperback covers, I’d easily choose the US one. But the UK only published the book in paperback. Between the UK paperback cover and the US hardback cover, I’d choose the UK, I guess? Because turtle? I’m calling it for America because of the three available covers, I like the American paperback by far the best.

40 thoughts on “Review: The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I think we are kindred reading spirits, because I’m loving this novel (I’m right in the middle and had to stop to finish another book first, but I can’t wait to get back to it), and I equally loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. You’re right—all of those footnotes and the documentary sort of reporting style make the two books similar, though I hadn’t thought to compare them. The story is kind of slow to unfold, so I’m not sure all my reading friends (or my book club) would love this as much as I do. But this book impresses me and captivates me at the same time!

    • Usually when I’m this enthusiastic about a book, the book has less horrifying subject matter than this one does. But what can I say? The heart wants what it wants. :p

    • Aw, thanks! I don’t even feel like I gushed ENOUGH here. And I didn’t say enough about the book. It’s just hard for me to talk about it because I thought it was so great and I don’t know how to put it into words.

    • It’s outside mine too! I read it because it was about scientific ethics, and I dig stories about ethics, but no other aspect of it would ever have appealed to me. I’m so pleased I decided to try it.

  2. I love your enthusiasm, I was smiling all the way reading your blog post. Have to look out for this one now. Your reviews are deadly for my TBR list.

    • The hardcover? The top one? That’s the one my mum likes, and she doesn’t care for the American paperback at all.

  3. I like the American paperback cover and agree that your enthusiasm for this (and the Zarr book) has added to my already too-large tbr but hey – what’s a tbr to do but to grow and grow and grow.

  4. Okay, I’m in. I love a really nasty narrator.
    Selene syndrome sounds like a version of the myth of Tithonius–immortality, but without eternal youth.

    • Yes! I didn’t understand why the author chose to call it “Selene syndrome” — I guess she thought it was a more evocative name than Tithonius, but it’s not nearly as apt. Selene was the one who had Endymion, right? He lived forever but fast asleep?

      • yes, fast asleep with his eyes open in some versions…perhaps the author wanted to evoke luna/lunacy? “Mental capacity” sounded to me like Alzheimer’s, but maybe they’re addled.

    • Loving books is SO awesome. I had such a good reading year in 2013, I was worried that 2014 wouldn’t be able to compare. But it’s been great so far, and there’s a lot of amazing-looking books on the horizon too. Reading! It’s the greatest!

  5. You read it! This is one that I didn’t get to for the Tournament of Books. Honestly, even though it made it almost to the finals, the commentary about it did not really intrigue me. Enter your review. This is definitely on my list now! Thanks for that.

  6. Okay, I got it from the library, and started it, but since it was a Jenny Book, I skipped to the end to see what The Real Deal was. And I HATED it. So I DNF’ed it. But it’s not your fault! And it looks like very competent writing. But I don’t want to spend that much time with THAT GUY. ugh.

  7. Pingback: Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.21: B-side Books, The People in the Trees, and a Mad Scientist Game | Reading the End

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