THURSDAY, 18 NOVEMBER 2021
Framed as a memoir written in prison by medical researcher Norton Perina — with interjections by his fawning colleague — this debut novel by Hanya Yanagihara charts Perina’s rise to scientific success at the expense of a fictional Pacific island and its people. He basks in scientific fame until his abuse of his adopted children is uncovered. None of the above is a spoiler: the events are presented at the beginning as newspaper clippings, leaving the reader hooked on how it all played out.
In answering that question, Yanagihara paints an unflinching, unforgiving portrait of scientific egotism and neo-colonialism. All the more horrifying is the fact the plot is a fictionalised version of the life of Nobel Prize winner and convicted child molester Daniel Carleton Gajdusek — so true to source that I recommend reading about him after reading the book. Interwoven are echoes of other real research trends, such as anthropologists omitting observations that did not match their Western notions of sex and gender dynamics. Even the name of the book is reminiscent of classic anthropological works, The Forest People and The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull (critiqued by Cathryn Townsend in Aeon). With so many deeply important strands drawn together, People in the Trees is a stunningly compelling and devastating novel which is well worth a read.