Sunday, 30 July 2017

Review: The People in the Trees- Hanya Yanagihara


Having read the Man Booker shortlisted  'A Little Life' a couple of years ago, I've been really keen to pick up some more of Yanagihara's work, and so I finally took the plunge and bought her first novel 'The People in the Trees'.

'The People in the Trees' follows the life of scientist Norton Perina, and opens with a news article stating that Norton has been arrested on the grounds of sexual abuse in 1995. With this in mind, Norton begins his autobiography, taking us back to his childhood and following his life up to the arrest. As a young man, Norton travels with Tallent, a well know scientist, on a research trip to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu. Here they come across a lost tribe, some of whom have unusually long lifespans caused by eating the opa'ivu'eke turtle, which maintains bodily health, but does not stop the deterioration of the mind. On his return, Norton reveals this discovery to the world, and is forced to suffer the consequences that this revelation brings.


It's so hard to summarise what this book is about, as it is really about so many different things. On the one hand, it covers the wonder of discovering something incredible and unknown, and then the conflict of whether this should be revealed to the wider world while considering the consequences this may bring, but on a more personal level it could be about how one interacts with the people around them, what constitutes a healthy relationship and the motivation behind why relationships are forged. The novel can definitely be read from either of these standpoints, and probably many more besides.

One thing I really love about Yanagihara's writing is her descriptions. For the part of the novel set in Ivu'ivu, the jungle is described so well that I felt like if I shut my eyes I could be among the trees and monkeys and butterflies. The tribes-people seems so realistic, and the description of their day to day life is so vivid that you can almost hear the crackle of the fire and the laughs of the children. This was definitely my favourite portion of the novel, and I almost enjoyed reading the descriptions more that I did following the plot.

Norton himself is a really interesting character. On the one hand you go into the autobiography section of the novel knowing that he has been arrested on child sex abuse charges, so before you have even met him you see him as a horrible person. But then as you begin reading from his point of view your opinions change, and you question whether the abuse has actually happened or not. I really liked this flip-flopping of opinion, and it definitely makes for some good twists at the end.


The only part of the novel that I didn't really like was the inclusion of the abuse in some parts. It definitely prompts you to read the novel from a different perspective, and to look back at it in a different light, but at times it felt like it was just put in for the sake of it, without really adding that much to the story. This is definitely a sensitive topic, and I think the book should be approached with caution if you're particularly sensitive to reading about child abuse. Overall, it didn't make me dislike the book at all, but it did perhaps feel a little jarring.

I definitely recommend The People in the Trees, especially if you love immersive description and are interested in nature. I found my mind wondering back to Ivu'ivu when I wasn't reading, and really wanted to keep on picking this book up. I think it's a really good introduction to Yanagihara's work if the sheer length of 'A Little Life' intimidates you a little bit. It's also a really good summer read if you like reading things that are a little darker, it has an adventurous and magical feel without being too safe, which I really loved.

E x
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