Shocking, disturbing, utterly compelling and unique

The People in the Trees - Hanya Yanagihara

After reading this author’s second book, “A Little Life”, I knew she was an author who wouldn’t disappoint.   So of course I had to read her debut book, “The People in the Trees”.  Once again I was completely blown away.


This is the story of Norton Perina, a young scientist who is asked by an anthropologist, Paul Tallent, to travel to the island of Ivu'ivu to search for a lost tribe of natives.  Not only is the lost tribe discovered but Perina also discovers that some of this tribe has lived for centuries due to the eating of the Opa'ivu'eke turtle, for which discovery he wins the Nobel Prize.  What he also discovers is that the immortality obtained comes at a terrible price to those who eat this turtle.  The author expertly touches on moral and ethical issues throughout the book and shows the terrible harm that is sometimes done in the name of science.


We know from the start of the book that Norton has been disgraced and accused of child molestation.  There are actually two narrators of the book.  Norton is writing his memoir and telling his own story.  Also commenting throughout the book is his close friend and research fellow, Dr. Kubodera.  Dr. Kubodera adds many footnotes to Norton’s memoir; however, in the e-book format, the footnotes are all at the end of each section, which sections are quite long, so it’s impossible by the time you get to the footnotes to remember what they’re referring to.  The footnotes and comments by Dr. Kubodera did lend a feeling of credibility to the book, though, and made the story feel as though it were true.  I caught myself several times thinking that I’d have to look that up on the internet as though it had actually happened.  To my surprise, after reading the book, I learned that the author based her story on an actual person, Daniel Gajdusek, a friend of her family and similarly disgraced Nobel Prize winner, which makes this book even more shocking.


This is a chilling, spellbinding book that held me in its thrall.  I do highly recommend it, though do caution that it contains some very disturbing scenes.   What makes these scenes even more horrifying is the rationalizations given so smoothly by the narrators.  There’s an evil worm crawling through these pages and while chills run up and down your spine, you won’t be able to look away.  Hanya Yanagihara is a force to be reckoned with in the literary world.  I’m looking forward to what she comes up with next.