Saturday, November 16, 2013

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

A remote island in Micronesia in the 1950s. A "lost tribe" who apparently lived for centuries. A doctor who won a Nobel prize in 1974 for his discovery of a syndrome of delayed aging that was related to eating a rare turtle. The same, never-married doctor, convicted of pedastry in 1997, after charges are brought against him by one of his own 43 (!) adopted children.

What a plot! Hanya Yanagihara has loosely based The People in the Trees on the real life drama surrounding Nobel prizewinner Dr. Gajdusek. Like other recent novels inspired by sensational news stories -- You Are One of Them (Elliott Holt) and Cartwheel (Jennifer duBois) -- it is very well executed.

The People in the Trees is framed as a memoir written by the imprisoned doctor Norton Perina, edited and with footnotes added by his one staunch supporter, Dr. Ronald Kubodera. NYTimes reviewer Carmela Ciuraru aptly compared them to a couple of characters from The Simpsons: [Kubodera] "serves as Smithers to Perina's Mr. Burns." (Except this book is not in any way a comedy.) In the audiobook [Dreamscape: 16.5 hr], the two men are narrated by Arthur Morey and William Roberts.

Perina is a fascinating character, a closeted gay man who seems nearly incapable of experiencing emotion. He writes of a time when he was a young man, travelling with his brother Owen (who is also gay):

"I can still recall, with a sort of odd, unpleasant clarity, that unfamiliar and inarticulable sensation I began experiencing, about halfway through the journey, whenever I gazed at Owen. I remember feeling something pressing against my chest at those times, substantial and insistent and yet not uncomfortable, not painful. After a few episodes, I deduced it was, for lack of a better word, love."

Later, Perina's distaste for women is a stumbling block when he considers that he might enjoy having children around.

"A wife! What would I discuss with her? I imagined days sitting around a plain white table and sawing away at a piece of meat burned crisp as toast, hearing the clop of her shoes as she walked across a shining linoleum floor, her hectoring conversations about money or the children or my job; I saw myself silent, listening to her drone on about her day and the laundry and whom she had seen at the store and what they had said." 

Perina's attitude towards children:

 "I have never found it difficult, as some do, to speak to children. All one has to do is pretend that they're some kind of intelligent farm animal: a pig, perhaps, or a horse. In fact, one should be much more intimidated by the prospect of speaking to a horse, since they can often be quite quick-witted and possessed of a great disdain for those they feel are not worthy of their attention."

If you only enjoy reading about characters that you like, you will want to stay away from The People in the Trees. It was weird that I found myself with concurrent books starring misogynists in the South Pacific. (See Worst. Person. Ever.) To have them both reference the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) was also a surprise. On top of that, the Tuskegee syphilis study is mentioned in The People in the Trees as well as in another book I've got on the go, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Another odd coincidence. Anyway, The People in the Trees audiobook held me spellbound.

Readalikes: State of Wonder (Ann Patchett); I was also reminded of the creepy yet erudite narrative voice in By Blood (Ellen Ullman); and the anthropological field study that makes up a large part of The People in the Trees has echoes of Coming of Age in Samoa (Margaret Mead).

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