The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I didn’t realise that this was the debut novel of Hanya Yanagihara, I had read A Little Life two years ago, and hadn’t seen this on the shelves at the time. The fact that this is the debut novel only makes it better for me.
I cannot understate how moved I was by this novel. There were parts where I felt my heart actually hurting, I was angry, I was confused, I was frustrated, and I was devastated. It is supreme writing to get me to feel all of those emotions, and still completely love what I’ve read.
The story itself sounds absolutely fantastical – a doctor, Norton Perina, sets out on an expedition with an anthropologist, Tallent, finding what could be the secret to immortality in a lost tribe. The fallout, and the sheer amount of children Norton adopts from the country is extreme – writing it now, it seems even more fantasy than I thought when reading it.
It is the writing that takes this almost ridiculous storyline, and creates a masterpiece with it. Written as Norton’s memoir, with an incredibly biased editor, it takes the story into a clinical, scientific point of view. There is no doubt that these events could take place when it is written with such realism. Norton’s memoir shows him to be a terrible person, but the real question that lingers over the story is whether he is terrible enough to have committed what he is accused of. Because Norton is writing from jail, where he was convicted of a crime that we are almost at odds to know if he was capable of or not.
The descriptions of the island where Norton and Tallent discover a tribe with unnaturally long lifespans are stunning, and his account of his own actions are in their own way, stunning as well. It was impressive that the author managed to keep the tone of the memoir the entire way, because at some points it is hard to read what Norton did, even as he is writing it as if it were nothing, or necessary.
Don’t skip the footnotes, they create their own little story, that then adds to Norton’s.
You must read until the very end, because I still haven’t gotten over the final couple of pages. I can’t decide if I wanted that to happen or not, and I can’t say too much more without hitting spoilers territory.
This is a brutal read, and I struggled at some points to read what was coming next. I liked feeling uncomfortable, and thought it was great that I hated Norton, even though it was his story. I like the interesting way the story was told, and I have never read anything written in that style before. Really clever and masterful writing style.
I loved this novel. Loved it. But it is not a read for the faint-hearted.