The People in the Trees. By Hanya Yanagihara

You might know this author with the unspeakable name from her more recent book, A Little Life, published in 2015. This last novel was on the shortlist of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. But if you are in doubt what to read of her, go for her debut: The People in the Trees. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.

Let’s be clear. A Little Life is definitely an impressive novel. Yanagihara is a word artist. She can formulate thoughts we all have had, about our parents, our friends, or our lives, in ways that we, mortals, cannot. I could tell others agreed, as I could literally see how many others had highlighted the same whole sentences in my Kindle-version of the book. (It was my first book on my brand new Kindle that I read and I was happy for it, because it went far beyond my English vocabulary, so the dictonairy function on the Kindle came in very handy.)
In A Little Life, Yanagihara follows the lives of and the friendship between four male characters, from college through middle-age. It focuses mostly on  Jude St. Francis, a lawyer with a mysterious past and unexplained health issues. The tension in the book is built up through this mysterious past. Jude walks with a limp and suffers from severe nerve damage in his spine that causes him great pain, which he blames on an car accident he was involved in as a child. As the lives of the four unfold, the very traumatic childhood of Jude is also unveiled, demonstrating the effects of his childhood to his adult life. It is also the reason why the book disappointed me eventually.

Discussing sad liability cases, some professors in law school liked to say things like “Reality is often far worse than fiction!” Thinking about A Little Life, I think I know why: Because in fiction, there are limits on how far the reader is willing to go with you, while reality does not abide by these limits. Or as a friend formulated it about someone she knows: “My friend had so many misfortunes, you wouldn’t believe it!” That is exactly what happens in fiction: You stop believing it. The magic of a good work of fiction is damaged. To me, Yanagihara just takes the abuse that Jude suffered in his youth too far to still be believable. Which intertwines with the other side of the coin and my second point of criticism: the extreme successful lives all four of them have. Yes, they (or at least two of them) start as poor students, and yes, they sometimes struggle with addictions, or relationships, or something else, but all of them obtain recognition and stardom in their respective fields, living fancy lives in their fancy appartments or art studios, swimming in money. It annoyed me to be honest. The extremes were just too extreme, I guess. And quite the opposite from The People in the Trees, whose richness lies in the subtleties and nuances.

The People in the Trees was published in 2013 and was in part inspired by a physician Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who was admired by the scientific community before being accused of child molestation. The book tells the story of Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, a physician, who travels to U’ivu as part of a research group. On U’ivu, a beautiful and mysterious island group near Hawaii, the research group observes a traditional village in all its habits and customs and hear the legend of the lost tribe that has been gifted with eternal life. Further exploring other islands, they eventually find this lost tribe and discover the secret of their eternal life.

I admit that it took me a while to get into the book, because of its slow pace.  But after the first sixty pages or so, I was hooked. Hooked by the beautiful discriptions of the island and its strange fruits and trees and inhabitants. Hooked by the numerous footnotes that make you wonder if it is fiction at all. Hooked by the magical world around you that is U’ivu. By then, you are lost. And you start feeling dirty. Very dirty. Lolita-dirty. No. Worse.

This is a book about morality in the 21st century, on all levels, from science to Western imperialism to personal relationships. Every step Yanagihara takes, is small and subtle, but eventually you come to realize: You have been seduced by the devil!

Leave a Reply