“The People in the Trees,” Hanya Yanagihara’s shockingly original and richly imagined debut novel asks the question: Is a great man still great even if he is a monster? Her tale is inspired by the life story of D. Carleton Gadjusek, a Nobelist known for his work on kuru, a neurological disease spread by the practice of funerary cannibalism in New Guinea, who was also a convicted child molester.
“The People in the Trees” opens with newspaper clippings reporting the arrest and sentencing of Nobel laureate Norton Perina:
Dr. Perina won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974 for his identification of Selene syndrome, a condition that retards aging. The condition, in which the victim’s body remains preserved in relative youth even as his mind degrades, was found among the Opa’ivu’eke people of Ivu’ivu one of the three islands of the Micronesian country of U’ivu. It was acquired through the consumption of a rare turtle. . . .
In 1968, he adopted the first of what were to be 43 children from the country, all of whom were raised in his Bethesda home. Two years ago, Perina was charged with rape and endangerment of a child; his accuser is one of his adopted children.
What follows is Perina’s own account -- written in prison -- of his discoveries and his eventual downfall. On a trip to Italy with his twin brother Owen, he realized, with scientific detachment, that what he felt for his brother was love:
The feeling did not last, of course. . . . I grew to accept and then long for that familiar ache, even though I knew that while experiencing it I was unable to accomplish, much less contemplate, anything else.
Love, to be blunt, does not adhere to the rules of science. It is Perina's severely wrong-minded understanding of love that leads to his eventual -- and monstrous -- disgrace.
In 1950, fresh out of Harvard Medical School, Perina joins an anthropological expedition to Ivu-ivu. Vividly described, it's a place of oppressive green, where sky and sun are blocked by a canopy of trees. It’s a place of strange fruits pulsating with edible worms. Miniature monkeys that are roasted on sticks. A hidden lake that’s home to the mythical turtles. Initially mysterious, the island quickly becomes “wearying” and “unceasing in its excesses.” Perina hears the story of a jungle tribe who are said to never die. The explorers soon encounter a female “creature” they call Eve, who behaved as if “she had once, long ago, been taught how to behave as a human and was slowly, steadily forgetting.” They meet other “dreamers,” as they call the feral people of the trees, who have been exiled from island society.
As Perina observes village life, he hypothesizes that the dreamers have gained a kind of immortality from eating the opa’ivu’eke, an indigenous turtle revered by the islanders. “I knew with certainty that I had found something spectacular, something bound to change science and society forever. I had found nothing less than immortality itself.” Returning to America, with several dreamers and the flesh of a turtle, he performs the experiments that will gain him a Nobel Prize.
Yet, what is horrifyingly apparent is that while the dreamers are centuries’ old, the price of seemingly eternal physical life is a long, slow, irreversible slide into dementia.
He also returns home forever affected by a tribal initiation ritual that convinced him that “all ethics or morals are culturally relative,” a belief that will mold the rest of his life by supporting his twisted sense of love.
From this point on, the novel shifts from being a classic adventure story to a rumination on the costly clash of two cultures. Perina’s discovery marks the beginning of the end of the self-sustaining lives of the people of U’ivu, as pharmaceutical companies trample the island in hopes of cashing in on the secrets of everlasting youth. The once-fit islanders become fat and slow thanks to a diet of Spam and booze.
Perina brings uncared for children home with him after repeat visits to U’ivu, convincing himself that he is doing this to atone for his role in the destruction of the island. In time, he adopts 43 children.
Shall I tell you how with each new child I acquired, I would irrationally think, This is the one. This is the one who will make me happy. This is the one who will complete my life. This is the one who will be able to repay me for years of looking.
Shall I tell you how I was always wrong – eighteen, nineteen, twenty times wrong – and how although I was always wrong, I didn’t stop, I couldn’t stop, I was searching, searching, searching.
In the end, his Nobel, his charity, his “magnanimity,” of course mean nothing when he is accused of rape. “Against the charges, my Nobel could have been a plastic trophy I won for bowling, so little did it matter.”
Perina, is a monster. And that, it seems, trumps all else.
“The People in the Trees” has it all. Part mystery, part confessional, and part exotic adventure story, it dares to explore moral relativity. Fans of Ann Patchett and Barbara Kinsolver will be certain to embrace this beautifully written gripping examination of one man’s expulsion from paradise.
“The People in the Trees” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.