04 May 2014

The Dissapointment of Endings: Why I Won't Soon Forget Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees

Click on the image to purchase the book from Powell's.
Oh god, I thought, can nothing in this jungle behave as it ought? Must fruits move and trees breathe and freshwater rivers taste of the ocean? Why must nothing obey the laws of nature? Why must everything point so heavily toward the existence of enchantment?
This is the best book that I have read this year.  It is the kind of book that made me wish that I was the author, that I could craft the carefully worded sentences, that I could bring a jungle to life with colorful images.  I wanted to live in her sentences, to eat them, to breathe them.  This is, by the way, the same way that I feel about Nabokov's Lolita, a book that is close kin with this one.  If Yanagihara wasn't such a seductress with her language, it would be impossible to spend nearly 400 pages with her narrator, Dr. Norton Perina.

Yanagihara is a travel writer, which isn't a surprise,  since she so effortlessly transports her readers to the fictional island nation of U'ivu.  Her book within a book, is a fictional memoir of Norton Perina, M.D., and his travels on an anthropological expedition to the uncharted island of Ivu Ivu, somewhere in the Pacific.  Perina is a young doctor, with little experience, who goes to the island with no inkling that he will make one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time:  a turtle that, when eaten, prolongs life indefinitely (although not without consequences).   There are several documents near the beginning of the book that let the reader know that this is not just an scientific adventure story.  We know from page one, and from Ron Kubodera (fictional editor and confidant to Perina) that our hero, our great adventurer, is behind bars for child sexual abuse, inflicted on one or more of the many children that he adopted while exploring the islands. 

And so Norton is, in the style of Humbert Humbert, a classically unreliable narrator.  And although the narrative is structured with the discovery of the Opa'ivu'eke (the magical turtle),at its center, the real heart of darkness in the book, the mystery of Norton's crime, is not revealed until the very end.  This harkens to my title for this post, because what we find at the end (which I won't spoil, if that is the appropriate term here) is what the careful reader always already knows, but perhaps wishes to disavow.  Because of Yanagihara's incredible talent,  her world, which is rotten at its core with tragedy ever lurking, comes alive and sparkles with beauty; the looking glass of Norton's distorted perspective did make believe in the "existence of enchantment." I can't wait to see what this incredible talent does next.


Title:The People in the Trees
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher:Doubleday
Date: 2013
Genre:Literary Fiction

366 pages.
Where I got it: the library



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