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.
"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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A dazzling, fundamentally flawed excursion into the grotesque
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.
Engrossing and disturbing
Liking seems a weak word. The story vibrated, it gnawed, it struck chords of recognition and also of dismay. There was not a single part that did not engage me.
The two main narrators were exceptional. That the narrator who read Norton's part had a style not dissimilar to that of David Sedaris was appealing.
That there are disturbing parts in this book did not diminish my enthusiasm for it. To me, these parts were necessary to my understanding of both the main character and also a larger social commentary. To be be shocked would show our blindness to the sometimes misguided mindset of our own culture.