JUST FINISHED: The People in the Trees

Author: Hanya Yanagihara

Genre: Fiction

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I felt like this book was a bit like reading some sort of loose scientific journal. That may seem like a strange comment, but that is truly how I felt. The main character, Norton, has a certain way of describing all and everything in a dissected, carefully picked language. I am quite sure that Yanagihara intended for him to come off that way and she easily excelled at that purpose.

The book is written as a memoir to a colleague after the main character has been imprisoned for sexual abuse as way to explain who and how he had become the man he was. The novel travels throughout the life of Norton, from his childhood to ‘retirement’ with a big change of his life coming from an experience traveling with anthropologist to a fairly undiscovered island county called Ivu’ivu. While there, Norton discovers some of the people are living beyond their expected lifespan by hundreds of years which he narrows down to be from consuming a native turtle, called opa’ivu’eke. Norton manages to snuggle off a turtle for his own experiments which then leads to his quickly propelled placement in the scientific community.

Throughout the text, the colleague being written to explains that he has edited Norton’s words where required and will add side notes to further explain ideals and situations that the main character brushes on.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve read with that sort of set up (The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman);however,  I found in this book that the side notes take away from the flow of the story. I would be reading a section and see the little number and glance down at the footnote, sometimes just a line, sometimes a whole page worth of information. The side note would always gravitate further on a topic slightly related to the main character’s story and try to fill any wholes in what was being said. I read the notes for a while and then started feeling annoyed and began skipping them altogether. I hope I didn’t miss too much…

There is a theme that Yanagihara presents throughout the book that is somewhat thought provoking. Can someone be forgiven for an act so grave? Can it be overlooked for their genius? Well, personally, I think those are easy questions to answer (yes and what does being a genius have to do with it, really?) but I can see how it could trouble some.

I think, more intriguing, is the juxtaposition of western thought processes meeting a tribe of peoples who know nothing of ‘civilization.’ A group of people that have a whole another set of moral standards and rituals for daily life. That, although a theme presented often and in several other novels, has always left me questioning the basis of our own standards and moral bearings. Who (or what) set it that way? Why does it have to remain that way? Could it be wrong? Is there really a hard ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Are we just treading in the murky grey of the black and white?

Would I recommend this book to you? Well, it depends. Do you like science and exploration? Do you like snooty characters and characters with sad backgrounds that cause them to make bad and questionable decisions? If you answered yes, then yes, I recommend this book to you.

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