This summer I made an effort to read every book on the Booker Longlist. It was a fantastic project that I really, really enjoyed, even down to the very last books. It gave me some brilliant books to read over the summer and introduced me to several new authors. One of these was Hanya Yanagihara who wrote the amazing A Little Life – a book I am steeling myself to re-read even though I know I will end up a sobbing mess.
But it was such a fantastic book that I wanted to search out some of her other books. One of these is the People in the Trees – an entirely different book from A Little Life, a much less emotional book, but still a really well-written, brilliant book.
It’s the story of a doctor called Norton Perina, who in 1950 joined an expedition with an anthropologist, Paul Tallent to a tiny group of islands in the Pacific – Ivu’ivu. Years later, the story begins as Perina is imprisoned for sexual assault of one of his many adopted children – all adopted from Ivu’ivu.
The book, purposefully, I think, begins with a Lolita-esque slant. The prologue is written by a sycophantic admirer of Perina, a former lab-assistant. Ronald Kubodera tells the reader that Perina is writing his autobiography in prison and sending it out to him. He says he is reviewing the excerpts and even acknowledges that he censors some bits – so immediately the reader knows we are faced with an unreliable narrator – indeed several layers of the unreliable narrator.
The book then begins to follow Perina’s life, as a normal memoir would, and it is interesting but that is about it until Perina joins Paul Tallent on an expedition to Ivu’Ivu. The ostensible story line follows the expedition to Ivu’ivu and the discovery of a lost tribe, together with the “dreamers” – people who live for hundreds and hundreds of years, but yet their mental capacity declines with their age, an extreme form of dementia. It turns out that these people may have discovered the secret to eternal life – eating the flesh of the opa’ivu’eke (a type of turtle).
Yanagihara’s writing is absolutely superb as she depicts the oppressive jungle, the endless climbs, the people unseen by any other humans before:
On and on the jungle went, so unceasing in its excesses that I eventually became numb to them. A creature, it’s malachite-dark back diamonded with scales, skittered across my feet … There were so many shades and tones of green – serpent, aphid, pear, emerald, sea, grass, jade, spinach , bile, pine, caterpillar, steeped tea, raw tea: how inadequate is our vocabulary for colour!
The story of the expedition is absolutely fascinating, as is the story of what happens after Perina publishes his results – an examination of colonisation, cultural imperialism, ecological damage as pharmaceutical companies and scientists the world over descend on the island of Ivu’ivu. But the novel is also a character study of Perina, a complex scientist who shows no remorse for his actions. Due to the book’s structure, the reader wonders throughout whether Perina is innocently accused or guilty, and whether we will ever find out.
Pretty cold at first as he details his childhood, the death of his father, his scientific studies, experimenting on animals, the first flashes of passion come when Perina meets Tallent, with whom he becomes infatuated – “disgusted by the ache I felt and yet enjoying it too“. Equal and opposite to his infatuation for Tallent is his hatred and repulsion to the other researcher on the trip, Esme.
I did not look at her, but around her seemed the sickening scent of menstrual blood, a tinnily feminine smell so oppressive that it was a relief finally to begin the day’s climb and to find it vanishing slowly into the odor of the jungle. And from then on I was unable to look at her without thinking of oozing liquids, as thick and heavy as honey but rank and spoiled, seeping from her every hidden orifice.
Perina is never a likeable character, and while it is often said that a book needs to have a likeable protagonist to interest its readers – I think that’s bullshit.
The children, and Perina’s adoption of them, come so late in the novel as to almost be an afterthought, which of course they were, as Perina’s life work, his defining feature in his view, was the expedition to Ivu’Ivu. The many children he adopted from there (43), his “extravagant collection“, was an adjunct, a way of holding onto his time in the island. I loved the descriptions of family life in this big old house – the juxtaposition between his cold observations and yet signs that he did actually love the children.
I don’t want to say anymore because I don’t want to ruin the story or its structure but it really, really is fantastic and I would definitely recommend it.