The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the TreesI love my online book club and the fact that it forces me to stay in contact with people I love and who love books. And even though my last selection for this book club was a total slam dunk, I still feel like I have to make up for the selection before that, which was a… um… thing that is bad in basketball (this metaphor would be better if I actually watched basketball).

I knew I couldn’t drop the ball (is that a basketball reference I HOPE SO) on this one, so I got some help from the good folks at The Morning News and their Tournament of Books. Two books that I loved, The Goldfinch and Life After Life, both went up against The People in the Trees, and in both matchups this book sounded absolutely fascinating. Three point shot! (I have no idea what I’m talking about.) (I’ll lay up off the basketball metaphors now.) (I am so sorry.)

Aaaaaaaaaaaanyway. This book. Fascinating.

What I remembered from the writeups, aside from the fact that my books kept losing, was that the story revolved around this scientist dude who went off and explored a little-known island and studied the people and found out that some of them were living almost literally forever and something something ethics something. I may have skimmed a bit.

I thought this would be a book about anthropology and the effect of an outside world on an insular world and the ethics of science and what it means to do research, and it absolutely is that book. Yanagihara makes note of the line between studying and respecting people and judging the heck out of them early on, and makes it really easy to do both throughout the story — to the U’ivuans and to our scientist Norton Perina himself.

Perina is an interesting subject of study; you find out at the very beginning of the story that he has been convicted of sexual abuse and statutory rape of some of his many (many many) adopted children. He never directly addresses these charges in the text but that knowledge hangs over his actual writings, which focus on his work with the U’ivuans and later with the turtles that make them live forever (poor turtles). Not in focus is the fact that Perina is a strange, awful, hurtful, self-obsessed person, but that part is pretty obvious anyway.

Y’all know how I love an unreliable narrator, so reading Perina’s memoirs of his life while knowing the “truth” behind them is totally fascinating to me. But this book is even better — these are Perina’s memoirs as edited and footnoted by a close personal friend, who at the end of his introduction notes that he has “cut—judiciously—passages that [he] felt did not enrich the narrative or were not otherwise of any particular relevance.” Oh, DID you now.

I said earlier that Perina never addresses the pedophilia in the room, but [spoilers?] it turns out that this is just one of the things that his friend judiciously edited, and this part of the narrative is included after the epilogue because it “should not make a difference” to the story, but of course it does, and really, even if you’re expecting the gist of this entry, it’s going to give you way more feelings that you anticipate. One of them may be the “I must throw this book across the room” feeling. (Seriously, what the fuck, Norton Perina?)

But with some time to process my emotions, it turns out that I really liked this book. Enjoyed, maybe not? But it is a really great work of fiction that is going on my “to be read again someday” pile.

This is probably a really great pick in general for a book club, because anyone who gets to the end is going to have SO MUCH to talk about. I don’t think my book club appreciated it quite as much as I did, but I can guarantee it was better received than that LeBron James book. I can guarantee that about a lot of books, actually.

Recommendation: For people who haven’t been uncomfortable or angry enough recently, and those who want to practice being nonjudgmental. (Good luck.)

Rating: 9/10

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