The People in the Trees

  • by Hanya Yanagihara
  • Narrated by Arthur Morey, William Roberts, Erin Yuen
  • 16 hrs and 32 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

In 1950, a young doctor, Norton Perina, signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile.
Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating consequences.


What the Critics Say

"Driven by Yanagihara's gorgeously complete imaginary ethnography on the one hand and, on the other, by her brilliantly detestable narrator, this debut novel is compelling on every level - morally, aesthetically, and narratively." (Publishers Weekly)
"Yanagihara presents a cautionary tale about what can happen when Western arrogance meets primeval culture." (Kirkus Reviews)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Warped Perspective of an Anti-Heroic Scientist

It begins with a quote from the Tempest’s Prospero: “A devil, a born devil, on who’s nature nurture can never stick, on whom my pains humanly taken all, all lost, quite lost.” From there to the very last paragraph, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees is a deeply unsettling, beautifully crafted narrative on the capricious nature of morality in science.

The novel opens with a news article detailing the trial of Nobel laureate, Dr. A. Norton Perina. Accused of sexual harassment and assault by one of his many adopted children, he languishes in jail, a convicted child molester in his early 70s after a celebrated career as an immunologist.

Perina’s protégé, Robert Kubodera, challenges the validity of this report claiming that the conviction was nothing short of familial betrayal. Kubodera has compiled (and edited) letters his mentor wrote during his imprisonment, and plans to publish a memoir which, he hopes, will exonerate the brilliant scientist in the eyes of the public.

What follows is the life story of Norton Perina – a man fascinating and repellant in equal measure. From a claustrophobic first person perspective, he coolly recounts his early life, education at Harvard, and eventual travel to a Micronesian island where he discovered the Opa’ivu’eke, a rare turtle capable of granting a flawed pseudo-immortality. The fallout of Perina’s discovery - the destruction of the indigenous way of life by an insatiable, myopic Western culture - is as predictable as it is tragic.

Yanagihara’s portrayal of monstrous genius should, by all logic, be off-putting but her prose and the East/West dichotomy evocative of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Orwell’s essays on India carry the reader into the thick Micronesian jungle and out again.

Perina makes a surprisingly compelling character, and the narrator – slightly effete, slightly disdainful – perfectly balances the amoral protagonist with the meticulous descriptions of a remote tribe. Kubodera regularly interrupts the novel (occasionally in mid-sentence) with footnotes, adding a unique, albeit biased, dimension to the storyline.

The People in the Trees is a magnificent debut from Yanagihara that I’d highly recommend to anyone looking for a poignant, unnerving, elegantly written work of literature.
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- linda

A dazzling, fundamentally flawed excursion into the grotesque

Any additional comments?

This fascinating, well written novel is fundamentally an argument against white colonialism, and the racism and exploitation that go with it. It is also an experiment in unreliable, unsympathetic narration, an attempt to render a character exclusively in dark hues, and this makes the book both intriguing and, alas, predictable. In life, the evil are never pure. Even the worst of them have a few good traits—that’s what makes them so dangerous. Not so, with Norton Perina. He is a composite of repulsive behaviors, a sociopath without a sociopath's charm, a selfish, conniving, narcissistic, misogynistic, unrepentant pedophile devoid of even a shred of humor or a wisp of compassion, much less any other recognizable human traits. Readers are invited not to understand him, but to loathe him. The consistency of Perina's nastiness makes him utterly predictable. While the plot delivers quite a few surprises, the character never does. You can be sure that in every situation, Perina will behave despicably. The book is a meticulous assemblage of slime and smarm: lengthy renderings of "smears" and feces and blotchy complexions; masturbation and menstruation and grotesque corpulence and putrid odors; people gorging on worms, trusting turtles and adorable miniature monkeys; rites-of-passage involving the ritual gang-rape of young boys (and those are the good guys!), all laced together via the protagonist's snarky remarks. Added to the mix is the victimization of humans, creatures, the environment--an entire world!--and, of course, the annihilation of innocence itself. The book can be enjoyed for its irony, complex plot, and haunting descriptions, and perhaps as a purist’s approach to the unsympathetic character. But prepare yourself for a long immersion in a truly hateful worldview, one that in the end I attribute not to Yanagahara’s hand puppet, Perina, but to the deliberate engineering of the author herself.

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- Danimike

Book Details

  • Release Date: 08-16-2013
  • Publisher: Dreamscape Media, LLC