The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara


Jill's take on The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

We bought The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara at a delightful little bookshop called Littered With Books in Singapore. I absolutely fell in love with this little shop, but that's a story for another time. At the time, I was feeling like I needed to get a book. I was staring down bookless-ness and it wasn't a pleasant feeling. I knew books were more expensive in Singapore, but I just didn't care. I wanted to read. And so, after browsing several titles and soaking up the bookstore's environment, we decided on The People in the Trees as our purchase for the day.

Now, if you notice in the photo above, The Wall Street Journal is quoted on the cover. I am not one to necessarily follow the Journal's advice, but I have to say they were right. This is a standout novel and thrilling. For the most part.

The story is sort of a memoir written from prison by a Nobel prize winning scientist. It follows his travels and scientific discoveries as well as his ultimate downfall upon "adopting" 43 children from the remote country where his discoveries occurred. Norton, the scientist, is a deeply flawed man and some might say not deserving of the Nobel in the first place. Was he just the right place at the right time and without any scruples in revealing the secrets of this remote island? Or was he indeed a great scientist deserving of his accolades?

One thing that feels true about Norton's character is that he is not a good man. His apathy towards most everything is a bit exhausting and the accusations against him (that eventually culminate in his imprisonment) are horrible. But the story itself, as written by Yanagihara is compelling. I don't think you're meant to like any of the characters in the book. She weaves a strong tale of "pharmaceutical colonization", child abuse, poverty and cultural appropriation and judgement. Yanagihara tells the story from memories that Norton is reflecting upon while imprisoned. There are footnotes and allusions to printed materials to support the scientist's discoveries and academic writings. I had a hard time with this as I always think of footnotes and citations as being truthful. In fact, the story is so well written from this perspective, that I kept having to remind myself it's not a true story. This never happened. I even looked it up to see if there was a real life Norton who was imprisoned for pedophilia and sexual misconduct.

This research led me to reading some reviews other people had written about the book. I generally don't engage in this kind of activity, as I don't want to taint my own perspective. But, this time I couldn't help it. There were some people who were so upset by the premise of the book and some of the descriptions of events that occur that they had to stop reading the book before they really got into it. Sure, there are events that are disturbing and Norton's reactions to them are even more so, but I didn't have a problem with it. Sociopaths exist and they walk among us. They also reside among us in books. 

Overall, I really liked The People in the Trees. I sort of lost steam three-quarters of the way through and the book took way longer than it should have to complete, but I did find the story lines interesting and found myself wanting to know more. I do recommend the book, though maybe not for people who are more easily offended and disturbed by ugly acts. Pick it up and give it a go. I'd love to know what you thought of it.


Zac's take on The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

I literally knew nothing about Hanya Yanagihara, and even didn’t know if the author was a man or a woman. In my defense it’s not a name I’m familiar with.

Which is really interesting as this phenomenon is quite a strong thread in the novel itself. Not that there are scenes where people of Western heritage are confused by “complicated” or foreign names, but there is an element of appropriation and fetishizing of the unknown and foreign by the west.

I found myself staring at the cover wondering as Jill did if the photo was of the real Dr. Norton. It was extremely well written although a little longer than necessary.

It’s a great commentary on how we (as Westerners, as humans) think that anything on the earth is made simply for our benefit. That we can and should take and break and destroy everything to serve our own desires, no matter what the cost.

And it turns out that this is a true story, at least in part based on the life of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek who studied a group of people in Borneo. That’s all I’ll say for now, letting her novel do the talking for this unique story written by a very talented and interesting woman. I can’t wait to read her other novels.