The People in the Trees
My first thought upon finishing Hanya Yanagihara's novel The People in the Trees was "wow, I can't believe that happened so recently, I wonder if he's still alive." My second thought was "Emily, don't be dumb, this was fictional." And there lies the power of Yanagihara's twisted tale of Dr. A. Norton Pernia, a pseudo-scientific Humbert Humbert. The People in the Trees draws an automatic comparison to Vladmir Nabokov's Lolita because both are narrated by jailed elderly men for crimes of pedophilia. The People in the Trees tackles other issues than the crime for which Norton is jailed. However, my gut reaction wasn't too far off. Based on a true story (!! which I have just discovered)
of Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, who "won a Nobel Prize [in 1976] for identifying a fatal disease in a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea. By the time of his death in 2008, Gajdusek had achieved another kind of notoriety, having been imprisoned for sexually abusing one of the dozens of native children he had adopted" (x). The main plot of Yangihara's novel revolves around a search for a "lost tribe" on the remote (fictional) island of Ivu'ivu. Norton is a young doctor on the expedition; and they discover (this is not a spoiler, don't worry) a group of "feral forest dwellers....who defy normal life expectancy while growing progressively more senile" (inside cover). Norton later learns that their seeming immortality is due to the consumption of a large turtle native to the island, the opa'ivu'eke. There is no happy ending to the novel. As the NYT book review writes, "Provocative and bleak, “The People in the Trees” might leave readers conflicted. It is exhaustingly inventive and almost defiant in its refusal to offer redemption or solace — but that is arguably one of its virtues. This is perhaps less a novel to love than to admire for its sheer audacity." An engrossing, albeit tad disturbing, read. Much like Lolita.