It took me a while to finish The people in the trees by Hanya Yanagihara. It is without a doubt a very intelligent, brilliant and complex book but at the same time it deals with a lot of difficult subjects and the main character Norton Perina is far from likable. We are being told the story of Perina’s life through letters he sends from prison to his assistant. From the beginning it is questionable how reliable a source Norton really is, as he seems to be crafting a version of the truth, focusing on certain things, while leaving others out. The story that he does tell is as much a confession as a defence. He describes his time as a medical researcher when he travelled to the secret Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu. There he discovers a turtle that allows people to live a far longer life. The price to pay for this extended life span is however, madness. The description of the life on the island and his time there is told in an almost meditative way, the attention given to little details is immense. I never thought rainforests could be this claustrophobic.
The book opens with the reason that Perina is imprisoned; he is being accused of sexually abusing some of his adopted children. Perina is based on the scientist Carleton Gajdusek, a fact that makes the novel all the more harrowing.
Is a brilliant man still brilliant man if he is also a monster? How far are we willing to go for science and what are we willing to sacrifice in its name? But maybe most interestingly how much is it our responsibility to question someone’s version of the truth? I think it is obvious that this novel is not one that you read and feel good about after. It is so disturbing at times that it was hard to continue. I also felt that certain issues within the novel like the destruction of nature, colonialism and moral relativism all had a current relevance. Hanya Yanagihara challenges the idea that characters must be likeable, Perina as a misogynistic sociopath. Also the novel doesn’t offer neat resolutions at the end but challenges us to question our own beliefs and moral point of view. Which is, quite frankly, far more important.