Review: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

the people in the trees

Fiction: A scientist revered for discovering a group of Immortals in the jungle is ostracised when his many children accuse him of molestation. A beautifully-written and timely tale that dissects misogyny, imperialism and entitlement.

Inspired by Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, a highly respected scientist before being accused of child molestation, The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara is a book that is all too necessary in a world of Woody Allens and the #MeToo Movement.

After being revered in the scientific community for decades after finding a group of immortals in the jungles of Ivu’ivu, scientist Norton Perenina is outcast after many of his adopted children come forward accusing him of molestation.

The story is supposed to be a memoir and is told in increments meant to represent letters Norton sent from prison to his close, faithful friend, Ronald Kubodera, who then edited and published them.

So convincingly is the novel written, what with the personal anecdotes and natural progression throughout his life, that the reader forgets it is fiction and not an actual autobiography.

The characters’ flaws are immediately present: Norton is too arrogant and entitled, which is not a good pairing with his fierce curiosity and intelligence. Kubodera is too blindly faithful and close-minded when it comes to his friend’s crimes.

As it is told entirely from Norton’s perspective, the reader gets neither an objective nor complete portrayal of any other characters that are met throughout the novel. Norton provides a very clear and unapologetic insight into the thoughts of a true imperialist and a misogynist. Throughout his entire research journey in Ivu’ivu, he sees the people, untouched by western civilization and living in what he believes to be an absurdly primitive state, and feels entitled to them- their holy artifacts, their ceremonies, their time- and does not care to abide by their rules nor respect them, unlike the others who he accompanies on the trip.

There are very few women throughout the novel. When they are encountered, Norton portrays them very negatively and hates them for not being as smart as him (even though he believes no-one to be). At times, it is exhausting to read from Norton’s perspective, with his backwards opinions and cocky attitude, but it is this disbelief that someone could actually think in this manner that keeps the reader entranced.

The story is very refreshing and, as previously stated, very timely in what it discusses- a powerful man who takes advantage of his adopted children’s vulnerability and dependence. Norton never respects the Ivu’ivuans- not when they help him with his research, not when they help him survive their stifling jungles, and not when he chooses to adopt up to 40 of their children. It is this lack of respect that fuels his disgusting actions, for which he never shows any remorse.

Throughout the entire book, I felt varying degrees of anger and exasperation at this man who felt so entitled to the world, and I saw many echoes of other men who I’ve encountered both personally and in the media, as I’m sure all women have. Never have I seen a superiority complex written so realistically, but capturing the nuances of human qualities is not new to Yanagihara, as is shown in her exceptional 2015 book, A Little Life – but that’s a whole other review.

The People in the Trees is an impeccable look into the mind of an abusive, arrogant, and entitled imperialist, as important and necessary as it is enthralling. I didn’t want to put this book down, despite the anger and disgust stirred up by the book’s flawless depiction of horrendous characters.