The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

16126596What it’s about: On an expedition to a remote island in the South Pacific, a scientist discovers that the native people have significantly increased their lifespan by eating a rare turtle, but their immortality comes at the price of severe mental degeneration. After winning the Nobel Prize for his discovery, the scientist is convicted of sexually abusing one of his 43 children, adopted from the island.

What I liked about it: This is a book that one admires rather than enjoys. Yanagihara has meticulously crafted this novel in the form of memoir (complete with footnotes), and she has created a terrific sense of place with her remote island setting. Very few people in the book like the narrator, Dr. Norton Perina, and certainly the reader does not like him either, but we are compelled to keep reading. It’s like watching a car accident take place in slow motion. Perina’s editor (and author of the footnotes) proves himself no more of a reliable narrator than Perina, excising key bits from the memoir, one of which he chooses to show at the very end. It’s not a twist in that the astute reader will certainly see it coming. Rather, we keep saying to Yanagihara, “Don’t go there; don’t go there,” but she of course does go there. The portrayal of humanity here, both in the quote-unquote unspoiled natives and the relentless, invading westerners who destroy everything they touch, is bleak and fatalistic. If you care about animals, if you care about children, if you have any optimism about humanity, I cannot really recommend this book. On the other hand, Yanagihara has done her job well, in the sense that I’ve never read a book quite like this.

You might like it if: You like really, really dark fiction.

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