Another Man's Poison: a review of The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

The meat of a very rare turtle called Opa'ivu'eke, which can only be found on the fictional South Pacific island of Ivu'Ivu becomes the catalyst of immortality in Hanya Yanagihara's powerhouse debut novel, The People in the Trees. Apparently Yanagihara, an editor-at-large at Conde Nast Traveler, has spent much of the last two decades at work completing this tale of a Nobel laureate who discovers more about the customs of a certain undiscovered tribe than he bargains for. In fact her main protagonist, Dr. Norton Perina, is based on  real life Nobelist, D. Carleton Gajdusek.

The text is presented technically as Perina's memoir/autobiography written from his prison cell. It is prefaced, edited and footnoted by Dr. Ronald Kubodera; his good friend and colleague. Through this format we are treated to classic unreliable narration, but this time with a Nabokovian twist: the addition of an unreliable editor, the veracity of whose explanatory footnotes and editorial intrusion comes into question as well. Who do we believe? It's just this sort of ambiguity which distinguishes this work from what some might consider pandering pulp.

From the beginning, the titanic theme of immortality pervades Yanagihara's story, but it soon becomes apparent that what she means to convey to her readers is something more complex.At the start of his career in medical research, Dr. Perina seizes on the opportunity to leave the boredom of laboratory mice behind to join the eminent anthropologist, Paul Tallent and his assistant Esme Duff, on an excursion to the remote South Pacific Islands of U'ivu (a fictional location based, according to the author, on the Hawaiian islands), where their ultimate destination is the "forbidden " island of Ivu'ivu. Once there, they discover a singular specimen of human female; a feral, speechless being whom they quickly dub Eve. Eve's discovery is just the first of a series of revelations they uncover concerning the aberrant rituals (not the least of which involves the Opa'ivu'eke) of the only indigenous tribe on the island; a tribe they have befriended and of whose village they now respectfully camp at the perimeter.

As the mystery unfolds for the three scientists, even as it seems a foregone conclusion to the reader, jealousy sprays its fetid odor over their camp. Perina, as if in consolation, channels his energy into one purpose: to obtain the flesh of the enchanted turtle for use in experimentation back in the States. But it is not the obvious draw -- immortality-- which tantalizes the doctor (sustained life proves to be more of a curse than a blessing), it's the discovery of the condition which he calls Selene syndrome -- a degenerative disease which retards the bodies aging process, but not the brain's -- caused by the ingestion of the Opa'ivu'eke.  It is in fact Perina's corrupt act of removing the indigenous species from its sacred ground which precipitates the series of events that will not only decimate the lives of the U'ivuans, but also poison the Nobelist, dooming him to a predatory and unfulfilled life.

Ms. Yanigihara has taken a big risk with this debut work but it is evident she has dedicated much of her careful time and energy to it. Although many readers may become offended because of some of its subject matter, it is a book that is starkly honest, true to its form, and authentic in its divergence. That is considerably more than you can expect from a novice writer of fiction.  

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (August 13, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385536771
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385536776


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