What I'm Reading: The People in the Trees

The People in the Trees is a story about what happens when the quest for immortality unravels humanity’s dark side. It is also a story about what happens when cultures clash; or when one culture imposes itself on another to detrimental consequences.

In Hanya Yanagihara’s novel, the story is told as scientist Norton Perina’s memoir. Perina, our protagonist, discovers a fountain of youth during an anthropological excursion on a remote, thickly forested island in Micronesia. The golden ticket: a special turtle the native population eat when they reach a certain age.

Unfortunately, vitality of body does not equally mean vitality of mind. Those who eat this special turtle live far beyond the normal lifespan, and while the body keeps up physically the mind deteriorates with time.

We follow Perina through discovery, ambition, recognition and a moral reckoning he – and we – must grapple with.

Language runs longer than concise and footnotes throughout – which are annotated by Perina’s friend (lover?!) – read academic, with lots of scientific citations and tangential anecdotes that paint a picture of Perina’s meteoric career and the savory (and not so) characters in his orbit.

Yanagihara’s novel is a literary adventure, and a timely read given current conversation about globalization, the me too movement and environmental concerns.

Read this book to lead your moral compass through its acrobatic paces. The author poses these questions, in an interview with Vogue,

“It’s so easy to affix a one-word description to someone, and it’s so easy for that description to change: if we call someone a genius, and then they become a monster, are they still a genius? How do we assess someone’s greatness: is it what they contribute to society, and is that contribution negated if they also inflict horrible pain on another? Or—as I have often wondered—is it not so binary?”

 

For further reading from Polynesia, check out this insider’s travel guide to Honolulu I wrote for New York magazine or this essay about the breakfast plate in Hawaii that unlocks its multicultural history, for Food 52.

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