Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees is the most disturbing novel I’ve read in years, and simultaneously one of the most beautiful.
Seeing the look on my face when I was most of the way through the novel, my husband asked, “Are you reading horror?”
“No,” I said, “but it’s pretty frightening.”
“Well, the title is creepy.”
And so it went.
The epigraph to The People in the Trees comes from The Tempest (4.1), when Prospero inveighs against what he sees as Caliban’s fundamental intractability, his resistance to civilization (that is, both civilization itself and being civilized, none too humanely, by Prospero). It’s an apt choice for Ms. Yanagihara’s narrative of science, immortality, destruction, ethics, and exploration itself.
The novel is composed of the memoirs of Norton Perina, framed by a preface and epilogue penned by his colleague and friend, Ronald Kubodera, who provides insight and explication with academic footnotes throughout the text. Perina, a doctor, is part of a small group that discovers a “lost” tribe on the fictional island of Ivu’ivu, with disastrous consequences for the islanders and, ultimately, for Perina himself. (By the way, I suggest that you do not read the jacket copy before you begin reading the novel itself — spoilers abound.)
Perina’s voice is compelling — both suave and vicious, aware of his personal shortcomings and willfully blind to his greatest moral failings. Kubodera, though trying to protect his mentor and justify his life’s work (and his own), consistently undercuts Perina’s attempt to appear as if he is withholding nothing, giving the reader the unvarnished truth. And maybe, in some sick way, Perina thinks he is delivering his own truth.
The horrors the novel presents are juxtaposed with the lush (there’s no other word) descriptions of the fantastical plants and creatures of Ms. Yanagihara’s invention. Even the few words of the U’ivuan language that Perina shares are musical and perfectly suited to the environment of the story.
As a child, I remember learning in school that the rainforest ought to be protected so that it would remain available for future study. When I read this novel, it occurred to me, after all these years, that perhaps we should be protecting it, and all the other wild places of the world, from study. After all, wouldn’t Caliban have been better off without Prospero?