Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara

I love an unreliable narrator. It's what made The Dinner, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so delicious (no pun intended). But, in my book club's discussion of The Dinner, I also found that unreliable narrators made some people uncomfortable. They felt "tricked" into liking or sympathizing with a despicable character. Now, I think any good reader needs to be aware--why assume your protagonist is good-hearted and honest?--but I can understand where they're coming from.

It's these contradictory feelings about unreliable narrators that seem to account for some of the divergent opinions about The People in the Trees (at least based on the Amazon reviews). But, from the beginning, it's clear the novel is layered in potential duplicity. The story is the personal account of Norton Perina, a Nobel-prize winning scientist famous for discovering a turtle among previously unknown indigenous people that granted those who ate it extremely long lives (though debilitating mental conditions later on). Over the years, Perina adopted 43 children from the island and has recently been jailed for molesting one of the children. Considering that Perina is writing--in his defense obviously--from jail should give the reader pause. Secondly, the book is compiled and edited by Perina's former colleague and uber-fan Ronald Kubodera, which adds an additional layer of potential obfuscation.

And, by the end, it's clear that Perina is a monster. But, he's a monster who's unaware of his monstrosity. We like to assume that bad people are like Disney villains--they do bad things out of a desire to "be evil." But most people who do bad things do so thinking they are behaving acceptably, or at least justifiably. If you ask them if murder is wrong they'll say of course, but what they did wasn't murder. And if you were to ask Perina is raping a child is acceptable, he'd of course say no: but what he didn't wasn't rape. Part of the book's success is that there are moments of understanding--and yes, even sympathizing with--Perina while also seeing his grossly distorted view of life, his "children," and himself.

Most of the book concerns the events prior to the trial and even the adoption of the children. A significant portion focuses on Perina's initial visit to the island of Ivu'ivu with the anthropologist Tallent and his experience with the "Dreamers," the elderly Ivu'ivuians living extended lifespans. Throughout, Yanagihara paints Perina as a lonely, narcissistic man unable to form real relationships. A man who adopts dozen of children not out of love or compassion (in fact, he purposefully spends a significant amount of time away from home) but out of a desire for some unachievable fulfillment.

I found the book and Perina fascinating and disturbing. Though the focus is on Perina, there's plenty of interesting commentary about the destruction of indigenous cultures and Western appropriation of local people. And a punch-in-the-gut ending.

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