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Posted on 11 Jun 2019 in Fiction |

HANYA YANAGIHARA The People in the Trees. Reviewed by James McKenzie Watson

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Captivating, confronting and challenging, The People in the Trees is the 2013 debut novel by Hanya Yanagihara, who would go on to explode onto the international literary scene with her Man Booker shortlisted epic A Little Life in 2015.

Part literary fiction, part dark adventure novel, part exercise in moral relativity, The People in the Trees is a brave and complex work with no interest in adhering to standard forms. This non-conformation is most apparent in its structure – a prison memoir by one fictional scientist and edited by a second fictional scientist, complete with footnotes, press clippings, redactions and supplementary writings. At its core is the story of a remarkable scientific discovery and the now-embattled scientist who made it, as detailed in a Reuters press release at the outset:

Dr Abraham Norton Perina, the renowned immunologist and director emeritus of the Centre for Immunology and Virology … was arrested yesterday on charges of sexual abuse … Dr Perina won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974 for his identification of Selene syndrome, a condition that retards ageing. The condition … was found among the Opa’ivu’eke people of Ivu’ivu, one of the three islands of the Micronesian country of U’ivu. It was acquired through the consumption of a rare turtle … whose flesh was discovered to inactivate telomerase.

After a preface by fellow scientist Dr Ronald Kubodera and second title page – The Memoirs of A. Norton Perina – Norton recounts the story of the research expedition which shaped his life. Alongside the charismatic anthropologist Paul Tallent and his research associate Esme, Norton ventures into the wilderness of Ivu’ivu, where the group uncover a band of seemingly demented nomads. These nomads, who’ve apparently achieved immortality by eating a turtle native to the island, are what the trio have come for. The body of the novel describes the researchers’ time on the island, including their increasingly fraught relationships with one another and the native people as they come to understand the implications of their discovery. Lingering in the background throughout is that fact that present-day Norton has charges of child abuse hanging over his head, charges he strenuously denies.

Norton’s account of his time on the island doubles as an anthropological and ecological report, and Yanagihara’s observations about the plants, animals and people of the fictional Ivu’ivu are highly convincing. A book that so thoroughly and straightforwardly details the intricacies of a non-existent island risks being exceedingly dull, but the descriptions here burst with colour and depth. Many of these observations are supported by lengthy footnotes from the memoir’s editor, Dr Kubodera, such as this one, where Norton describes seeing an op’ivu’eke turtle for the first time:

It was perhaps somewhat smaller than I had imagined – about the circumference of a hubcap – and its feet, not surprisingly, more flipperlike, more like a sea turtle than I’d pictured.*

*[Footnote from Ronald Kubodera] The opa’ivu’eke remains the only turtle in recorded history that can live in both fresh water and saltwater for sustained periods of time.)

On the surface, this commitment to emulating authentic scientific writing lends the ‘adventure’ narrative an almost fantastical level of engagement and realism, but its effect is much more profound than that. By mimicking a style so associated with authoritative reporting, Yanagihara gives her already robust and complicated characters another degree of believability. It’s here that the heart of The People in the Trees truly beats, because this form only seeks to maximise the impact of the real story: a morally ambiguous exploration of abuse, power and colonialism through the eyes of a troubled, complex, and often deeply unlikable protagonist.

It’s hard to not think of Yanagihara’s behemoth second novel while reading The People in the Trees. The fact that much of this book’s recent audience would only have discovered it via A Little Life’s success makes uncoupling the two novels even harder. They lend themselves exceedingly well to comparison – there are striking similarities and even more striking differences between the two works, to the point that they may well be two sides of the same coin. Common to both is child sex abuse, a fact laid bare on The People in the Trees’ opening page. Where the two works diverge is in the perspective from which they explore this confronting topic. A Little Life is about an abuse victim. The People in the Trees is about abusers. It explores this in many contexts – the child abuse allegations hanging over Norton, the ritualistic abuse practised by the Ivu’ivu tribe, and the abuse of the island’s native peoples by white invaders.

The People in the Trees is rarely graphic in its depictions of this abuse, and its most harrowing events are hinted at with only a whisper and an inference. What makes it so disturbing is Yanagihara’s commitment to depicting events through the moral lens of her controversial protagonist, no matter how confronting his conclusions may be. In this way the novel becomes an unsettling and highly effective exercise in moral relativism. There’s never a feeling that anything in the narrative – its events, its outcomes, its structure – is a  reproach about the choices made by its characters. There’s no external justice weighing on the shape of the story, to punish those who do wrong. If you’re going to put yourself in Norton Perina’s shoes, then you’re going to have to accept the world on his terms. Conventional morality has no place here. Norton hints at this midway through the book when witnessing the Ivu’ivu tribe practising ceremonial abuse:

This may sound very naïve, but I suppose I had thought until that point that there were a few absolutes in the world – that certain behaviours or acts, like murder, were inherently wrong, and others inherently correct. But my time on Ivu’ivu taught me that all ethics and morals are culturally relative. And Esme’s reaction taught me that while cultural relativism is an easy concept to process intellectually, it is not, for many, an easy one to remember.

The People in the Trees is a provocative and uncompromising novel that stands alone as a brave literary achievement quite apart from the success of Yanagihara’s later work. It’s a hard book to truly ‘enjoy’, but its reward comes from the workout it’ll give your ethical bearings. Not sure if your moral compass is working properly? Give this book a spin. The sense of deep disquiet you’ll come away with is confirmation you know exactly where north is.

Hanya Yanagihara The People in the Trees Picador 2013 PB 368pp $18.99

James McKenzie Watson writes short and novel-length fiction. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. Find him at and follow him on Twitter @JamesMcWatson

You can buy The People in the Trees from Abbey’s here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.