Published by Doubleday on Aug. 13, 2013
In 1950, young doctor Norton Perina agrees to join an anthropological expedition to Ivu ‘ivu, a Micronesian island nearly untouched by Western society. With the help of an islander, the team is able to find the mysterious “lost tribe” they wish to study — but this discovery leads to an even more important one.
Norton and company happen upon a group of exiles from the village — a group of people who are impossibly old, if the testimony of the villagers is to be believed. But immortality has a price; although “the dreamers” appear to have stopped aging at 60, they suffer extreme senility.
Determined to solve this puzzle, Norton theorizes that their immortality is gained from eating the meat of a rare turtle, the opa’ivu’eke, an animal that features prominently in the island’s mythology. He kills one of these turtles and smuggles it back to the US, where his studies confirm his suspicions. His research eventually wins him a Nobel Prize and gains international attention, and Ivu ‘ivu is flooded with pharmaceutical companies searching for a cure to aging. Of course, their efforts completely destroy the island’s environment and the culture of its people, plunging the Ivu ‘ivuans into poverty and despair.
The People in the Trees has a framing device that I really liked. It is presented as Perina’s memoir, which he has written at the behest of Dr. Kubodera, a long-time friend and colleague — wait for it — while sitting in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing a minor. Because, you see, Norton developed a habit of adopting children from Ivu ‘ivu. He acquired a few every year, so that by 1995, when Norton is writing his memoir, he has adopted and raised a grand total of 43 children. If you’re a little creeped out by this idea, just wait until you read the book.
Norton is… a bit off. If you dig unreliable narrators, look no further for your next read. He is asked to tell his story to try to clear his name and remind the scientific community that he is more than just a sex offender, but his narrative is rather unsettling. Trawling through his mind was very interesting, and he made an incredibly compelling character.
I think the memoir framing worked really well for this type of book. The novel opens with a news article about Perina’s arrest and a preface by Dr. Kubodera, explaining the whole situation — that he asked Perina to write his memoir and that Kubodera edited it, etc. Perina’s narrative is also sprinkled by Kubodera’s footnotes providing clarification or further information. Although Norton frequently does a terrible job of making himself look good, Kubodera’s interjections on Norton’s behalf were fascinating; I was dying to learn more about their relationship, which Perina doesn’t go into. It was interesting to read Norton’s story while keeping in mind the context in which it was written — and the knowledge of Kubodera’s clear bias while editing it.
The People in the Trees wasn’t quite what I was expecting; I had in mind something more like Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and this novel is of a very different, much darker style. However, I really enjoyed it. I think it’s a very good first novel. It’s so richly detailed that it played like a movie in my head, and Yanagihara writes a great, complex, unreliable narrator. She also provides interesting perspectives on immortality, the costs of scientific progress, and the dark minds that sometimes lurk behind brilliance.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.