The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara


In recent months I have been working through some of the books that I have had on my shelves for years but haven’t got round to reading previously. One of these books was Hanya Yanagihara’s 2013 debut novel, The People In The Trees. In 2015, Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and it was one of my favourite reads for that year. As a result I was interested to discover her earlier work.

Having been so long since I picked up my copy, I wasn’t really sure that to expect from The People In The Trees, but from the early pages we learn that this is the story of a renowned scientist who becomes the centre of a scandal. The scientist in question is A. Norton Perina, and the novel is a fictional memoir which follows Perina’s life and work, the discovery that led to him to his fame and fortune, as well as the subsequent events which contributed to his downfall. Whilst the majority of the story is told through Perina’s perspective, we also hear from his friend and colleague, Ronald Kubodera, as he comments on aspects of Perina’s story through the use of footnotes. Whilst I personally find footnotes quite distracting whilst reading, this did provide additional information and some interesting background to Perina’s life, a life which is certainly eventful, and surprising.

The opening pages of The People In The Trees certainly caught my attention, and I was intrigued to see how the plot developed and how Perina came to be in this situation. And his journey to that point was a difficult one, with moments that made for uncomfortable reading. As with A Little Life, Yanagihara has tackled some complex and difficult subject matter through this story, and whilst I have read many books with themes which are uncomfortable, there were points in this book where I considered abandoning it. This is not to say that this is badly written, as I believe that this perfectly captures the nature of the story and the essence of the characters, and the moral ambiguity that is presented. The writing is vivid and visceral, and the minutiae of life on the Micronesian island in which Perina makes his discovery is brought to life. This goes into a lot of detail over the customs of the inhabitants, their culture and the way the characters behave toward each other, exploring the ways in which humans harm one and other, and the world around them. And Perina is certainly an interesting, far from likeable character, and the way he behaves is shocking. Given the nature of the scandal that he is faced with there are tricky subjects dealt with, and I also found his casual cruelty towards his lab animals particularly hard to stomach. That said I did persevere with this one, as I appreciated the standard of Yanagihara’s writing, and was interested to see where Perina’s story would go.

The People In The Trees is a difficult book to review. It is not a book I can say that I enjoyed, given the subject matter and some of the passages of writing that I found uncomfortable to read. However, this was a well written book, which was effective in drawing on those human emotions, whilst dealing with a story that is different from anything I have read recently, as it transports the reader to a different place, and way of life, and the mark it left on the scientists who set foot there.

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