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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The People in the Trees
The People in the Trees
A Novel
by Hanya Yanagihara

Paperback (6 May 2014), 496 pages.
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN-13: 9780345803313
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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.

I.

I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small, unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest. By which I mean that the town, as I remember it, was exceptional only for its very lack of distinguishing details. There were silos, and red barns (most of the residents were farmers), and general stores, and churches, and ministers and doctors and teachers and men and women and children: an outline for an American society, but one with no flourishes, no decoration, no accessories. There were a few drunks, and a resident madman, and dogs and cats, and a county fair that was held in tandem with Locust, an incorporated town a few miles to the west that no longer exists. The townspeople--there were eighteen hundred of us--were born, and went to school, and did chores, and became farmers, and married Lindonites, and began families of their own. When you saw someone in the street, you'd nod to him or, if you were a man, pull down the brim of your hat a bit. The seasons changed, the tobacco and corn grew and were harvested. That was Lindon.

There were four of us in the family: my father, my mother, and Owen and me. (1) We lived on a hundred acres of land, in a sagging house whose only notable characteristic was a massive, once-grand central staircase that long before had been transformed by generations of termites into a lacy ruin.

About a mile behind the house ran a curvy creek, too small and slow and behaviorally inconsistent to warrant a proper name. Every March and April, after the winter thaw, it would surpass its limitations and become a proper river, swollen and aggressive with gallons of melted snow and spring rain. During those months, the creek's very nature changed. It became merciless and purposeful, and seized from its outgrown banks tiny, starry bloodroot blossoms and wild thyme by their roots and whisked them downstream, where they were abandoned in the thicket of a dam someone unknown had built long ago. Minnows, the creek's year-round inhabitants, fought upstream and drowned. For that one season, the creek had a voice: an outraged roar of rushing water, of power, and that narrow tributary, normally so placid and characterless, became during those months something frightening and unpredictable, and we were warned to keep away.

But in the heat of the summer months, the creek--which didn't originate at our property but rather at the Muellers', who lived about five miles to the east--dried once again to a meek trickle, timorously creeping its way past our farm. The air above it would be noisy with clouds of buzzing mosquitoes and dragonflies, and leeches would suck along its soft silty bottom. We used to go fishing there, and swimming, and afterward would climb back up the low hill to our house, scratching at the mosquito welts on our arms and legs until they became furry with old skin and new blood.

My father never ventured down to the creek, but my mother used to like to sit on the grass and watch the water lick over her ankles. When we were very young, we would call out to her--Look at us!--and she would lift her head dreamily and wave, though she was just as likely to wave at us as she was to wave at, say, a nearby oak sapling. (Our mother's sight was fine, but she often behaved as a blind person would; she moved through the world as a sleepwalker.) By the time Owen and I were seven or eight or so (at any rate, too young to have become disenchanted with her), she had become an object of at first pity and, soon after, of fun. We'd wave at her, sitting on the bank, her arms crossed under her knees, and then, as she was waving back at us (with her whole arm rather than simply her hand, like a clump of seaweed listing underwater), we'd turn away, talk loudly to each other, pretend not to see her. Later, over dinner, when she'd ask what we'd done at the creek, we'd act astonished, perplexed. The creek? But we hadn't been there! We were playing in the fields all day.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. Copyright © 2013 by Hanya Yanagihara. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dealing with complex issues such as moral relativism across cultures, this accomplished debut sheds light on the true price of progress.

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The People In the Trees contemplates the cost of scientific discovery – and its effects on society as a whole. The primary character, Dr. Abraham Norton Perina (who is roughly modeled after the real-life Nobel Laureate Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) is a renowned scientist and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in medicine. His professional achievements notwithstanding, Perina has been convicted of raping and sexually assaulting his adopted children, a fact we come to know early on.

The reader learns of Perina's life history through his memoirs, which are presented by a close friend and associate, Dr. Ronald Kubodera. Kubodera writes a preface to the memoirs and embellishes his friend's words with technical footnotes. Viewing a life through two prisms, the reader is left to decide whether Perina is a good man who was simply misunderstood, or a criminal getting his just deserts.

The son of lax parents, for whom he holds a controlled contempt, Perina grows up in Lindon, Indiana, "an unremarkable rural town." A young doctor at Harvard Medical School in 1950, subject to the pitiful politics of the research lab, he is afforded the opportunity to do something new: Stanford anthropologist Paul Tallent is heading an expedition to the remote fictional Micronesian island of U'ivu in search of a long-lost tribe, and Perina is invited to accompany the expedition as a medical recorder/sample-taker. He jumps at the chance to do some actual research and accompanies Tallent and his associate Esme Duff into, literally, uncharted territory. In due course Perina comes across evidence that could hold the secret to longevity. We learn about the "dreamers" - people who eat a special kind of turtle meat when they turn 60 and then live on well past 100 (albeit with diminished mental faculties). The potential large-scale application of this discovery could have huge ramifications for the relatively sheltered tribes of U'ivu.

The wonders of new worlds are enticing – and make for an engrossing page-turner when they are described in minute, mesmerizing detail as Yangiraha does. In The People In the Trees, we are transported from the clinical, sterile environment of the research laboratory where Perina works, to the lush green environs of the untouched wild. Such is Yanagihara's power over the written word that the journey is vivid and atmospheric; we are with the expedition every step of the way. Perina himself comes across as practical and pragmatic, although self-absorbed and strongly focused on his personal goals.

The book seems to divide into two parts – one details Perina's adventures into U'ivu and the other tells us about events after he first returns, and the impact of his findings on the Ivu'ivuans and Perina himself. This second phase assumes a more personal tone, dealing with Perina's family life and the many children he adopts from the island, one of whom accuses him of sexual abuse.

The author narrates anecdotes – minor and major – to help flesh out her characters. No word, no glance, no nuance is ever without meaning. Each little incident adds another facet to the picture we build in our minds. Whether it be the one where Perina describes an evening spent with Gregory Smythe, his supercilious superior at Harvard, or the one about the Ivu'ivuan coming-of-age ceremony and the reactions it provokes in Tallent's team, each event serves a purpose. Yanagihara drops subtle little hints throughout the book, and it is her skill as a wordsmith and storyteller that made me read on.

This smooth-flowing, anthropological novel is an impressive debut – a book that lingers in one's mind. When all is said and done, it makes us contemplate the benefits and evils of scientific conquest. What price discovery? When knowledge comes at a cost, who pays it and how do we justify it, if at all? This is also a tale of moral relativism, of differences in cultures and perspectives, and outlines precisely the very thin line separating gestating thought from evil action.



Reviewed by Amodini Sharma

Library Journal
Yanagihara's work, which appears to be loosely based on the life of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, is fast-moving and intriguing, although it does darken toward the end. Yanagihara is definitely an author to watch.

Booklist
Perina is a delightfully black-hearted protagonist trapped inside Yanagihara's unfortunately inelegant prose.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Driven by Yanagihara's gorgeously complete imaginary ethnography on the one hand and, on the other, by her brilliantly detestable narrator, this debut novel is compelling on every level.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Yanagihara presents a cautionary tale about what can happen when Western arrogance meets primaeval culture.

Author Blurb Madison Smartt Bell, author of The Color of Night and All Souls' Rising
The People in the Trees is a Nabokovian phantasmagoria, bound to raise serious, interesting, troubling questions.  Hanya Yanagihara is a writer to watch."

Author Blurb Anthony Doerr, author of Four Seasons in Rome and The Shell Collector
The People in the Trees is not a first novel like other first novels. This is a big, soaring, old-school, super-absorbing vehicle into another world. It's a mystery story, an ecological parable, a monstrous confession, and a fascinating consideration of moral relativism. Yanagihara's narrator is misanthropic and grotesque, yet simultaneously magnetic; her prose is dazzling; and her book is a triumph of the imagination.

Author Blurb Paul Theroux, author of The Lower River and The Great Railway Bazaar
This is an engrossing, beautifully detailed, at times amazing (and shocking) novel, and right up my alley: a far-off and beautiful place in the Pacific, islanders living to their own drumbeat, earnest meddling outsiders, and a sticky outcome—the Fall, with a lot of science and passion behind it, and an impressive debut for Hanya Yanagihara. I loved this book.

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Micronesia

In The People of The Trees, Perina and Tallent journey to the fictional Micronesian states of U'ivu and Ivu'ivu. While these particular islands are fictitious, the region of Micronesia, literally "small island" in Greek is composed of thousands of small islands in the western Pacific Ocean, north of Australia.

Micronesia

From 1947, most of the nearly 2,500 islands that make up Micronesia were administered by the United States as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1986, the Trust Territory was dissolved into four constitutional governments: the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Belau (Palau), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. All four have continuing political and economic relationships with the United States. As do the other key islands or island groups in Micronesia: Kiribati, Guam, Nauru and Wake Island.

The Micronesian region, made up of volcanic and coral islands, is shaped like a parallelogram with its corners formed by the Republic of Belau in the southwest; Kiribati in the southeast; Guam in the northwest; and the Marshall Islands in the northeast (see map above). At 225 square miles, the US territory of Guam is the largest island in Micronesia, home to over 180,000 people. The Republic of Nauru is one of the smallest countries in the world, with a total area of nine square miles. While Micronesia refers to the region as a whole, it is not to be confused with the Federated States of Micronesia which is an independent sovereign nation formed around the Caroline Islands archipelago with its capital at Palikir (see map below).

The Federated States of Micronesia

The people of Micronesia are a mixture of Melanesians (Greek: "black island"), Polynesians (Greek : "many islands") and Filipinos.

Micronesian Island Traditional foods include starchy vegetables such as taro root and yams; fish and shellfish. The islands also tend to have plentiful fruits including banana, coconut, papaya, mango, breadfruit and citrus.

As do most other cultures around the world, the Micronesians mark events like births, deaths, adolescence and marriages with traditional celebrations. For example, a hair-cutting ceremony marks male puberty on the Micronesian island of Yap.

Map of Micronesia from Wikipedia
Map of Federated States of Micronesia from cia.gov
Picture of Micronesian island from Touristdestinations.com

By Amodini Sharma

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