Oh, Hanya Yanagihara. WHY MUST YOU ALWAYS BREAK MY POOR HEART?
I have a strange, conflicted relationship with ‘A Little Life’, the first novel of Yanagihara’s I read. I adore it; it’s one of my favourite books of all time, but I could also watch it burn.
(Temporarily. Then I’d dive in and save it from the flames, cuddle it closely to my chest like a precious kitten, and then throw it out of a window.)
In short, more than any other book, ‘A Little Life’ broke my heart into little pieces. It was such a beautiful, lyrical book which depicted true friendship and love so perfectly, bringing meaning out of tragedy and making me question my long-held beliefs.
So, imagine my feelings when I saw that Pan MacMillan had published another of her books.
I picked it up, put it back down, picked it up again, decided I wasn’t emotionally ready, left the shop, returned, left again, ordered it on the internet, cancelled my order and then bought it at Foyles.
From New York to a mysterious island…
Or, in fact, the other way around. ‘The People in the Trees’ was written before ‘A Little Life’ which was set in New York.
‘The People in the Trees’ follows a slightly more familiar plotline than its successor. It begins with a preface written by Dr Kubodera, who promises to reproduce here the memoirs of his friend and colleague Dr Norton Perina.
The latter is in prison, using his free time to put together an account of his first trip to a remote Micronesian island called Ivu’ivu. Alongside anthropologist Paul Tallent, Perina discovered a lost tribe on the island, which appears to hold the secret to immortality – but at a cost.
The majority of the action in the novel takes place on the island itself. Yanagihara’s superb writing style and vast imagination are put to excellent use here, her evocative descriptions of the forbidding jungle landscape painting a rich picture.
The detail here is brilliantly convincing, from the tiny monkeys that inhabit the forest (vuakas) to the grub infested fruit favoured by the locals (manama), Yanagihara builds a three-dimensional culture and language to support her story.
So, here we have quite a classic ‘coloniser discovers lost tribe’ narrative. It’s a path well-trodden, but often within the realms of adventure stories rather than as an examination of individual morals.
What Yanagihara does instead is to make it disturbingly clear how much of our behaviour and respectability is often driven by our confinement in society. Once free of that, are we governed by the same principles?
The original trio which enters the jungle consists of Perina plus Paul Tallent and Esme Duff, two anthropologists who contract Perina to assess the health of the tribe. Their interests are self-serving of course; they go to seek fame and to feed their own curiosity.
But the supreme opportunist is Perina, whose blatant sense of entitlement and superiority at others’ expense feeds the tragedy of the novel.
The ethical question comes to a real head when the trio witnesses a tribal ritual which, by Western standards, would be horrific to see. Esme is revolted, Tallent is ambivalent and Norton utterly nonplussed, the reader forced to pick a side and question how applicable our morals are outside of familiar frameworks.
Man or monster?
There’s a lot to chew over in this novel, both from a moral and a characterisation point of view. You will find yourself thinking about it when you’re not reading it. I dedicated quite a lot of my downtime to asking myself how I felt about Perina himself.
On the one hand, he is driven and ambitious, with a Nobel prize to his name, hoards of adopted children he has rescued from poverty and disciples who consider him one of the world’s greatest scientists. On the other, he is cold, completely self-serving, arrogant and remorseless.
His true character and agenda become clearer as the novel progresses, as the reader becomes naturally more sceptical of his extremely unreliable narrative.
This is a novel which requires input; self-questioning, empathy.
But it’s also a novel which will reward you richly with a brilliant story and an ending that will leave you reeling.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it and had to put on an episode of The Great British Bake Off to recover.
Anybody else have complicated relationships with their favourite books?!