Title: The People in the Trees
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publication Date: August 13,2013
How I Got It: NetGalley
Goodreads Summary: In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.
My Review: (Contains spoilers) I've been sitting on this review for quite a while. Like 2 months. I needed to really ponder it before I wrote a review. Then I got myself so worked up that I couldn't write a review that would do it justice that I sat it to the side again. But I can't let it go without writing something. So while I don't believe I can touch on everything I felt in this book in a few paragraphs, I'm going to give it my best shot.
Hanya Yanagihara's descriptions of Norton Perina's journey to an isolated island mirrors Barbara Kingsolver's description of the Price family's journey to the Congo. Both authors transport you to a lush and uncharted world with mystery and danger around every turn. Perina learns of an island rumored to be inhabited by people living many decades longer than the average human due to eating a particular type of turtle. He journeys to this island with two fellow scientists (a male, which pleases him and a female, which does not.) As his journey begins, memories of Norton's childhood and interest in becoming a scientist unfold. Upon arrival on the island, they learn of strange fruits and the separation of the villagers from the Dreamers. When tribe members reach the age of sixty they are allowed to eat some of the sacred turtle meat and their lives are extended. However, they are turned away from the settlement and are sent to live in the wilds of the island. The customs of the tribe are viewed and recorded by the scientists. While these rituals are shocking to the reader, it raises the topic of post-colonialism and the conversion of multitudes throughout history to "acceptable" behaviors.
After smuggling a sacred turtle back to his lab for study, Perina is unable to duplicate the results or control the outcome. His experiments open up the topic of animal experimentation and due to his bringing some of The Dreamers back with him, the line between human and animal. The story continues into a strange, third part of the novel with Perina adopting dozens of children from the island and the chaos that ensues. Not only the physical tornado of that many people living in a single household but the relationships between Perina and the children as well as the relationships between the children themselves. These relationships are hinted at in the beginning of the novel by the narrator (who supplies footnotes throughout the story and is a topic unto himself.)
When the sacred turtles are hunted to extinction, the studies reach a dead end but the reader's imagination wanders. If a rare Amazonian flower cures cancer, who gets the flower? How do scientists keep their experiments under wraps to prevent others from harvesting the flower to extinction? How many "cures" lie in a remote location? On and on the theoretical debate can go and then you can wonder how much is really going on right now that the average person has no idea about? You will find your imagination running away on such a variety of topics as you read this novel.
This novel touches on so many larger topics that I can see it being a high school or college classroom assigned reading. Almost every page could be dissected and discussed at length. It would have fit right into my post-colonial literature syllabus in college. As a matter of fact, this novel could be a course within itself.