I have been seeing A Little Life all over the place lately. But, I had yet to read The People in the Trees, the premise of which appeals to me more anyway. So, after reading Carolyn’s review of A Little Life, Laura (from Reading In Bed) and I decided to read it together. Thanks for reading it with me, Laura!
(Warning: I tried hard to make this spoiler free, but there could be spoilers in this review.)
The People in the Trees really took me for a ride. Once you get into it, it is hard to put it down. The book starts with a preface written by Dr. Ronald Kubodera, a colleague of Dr. Norton Perina’s, telling us about the sexual abuse charges brought against him by one of Norton’s adopted children. Ronald is appalled at his sentence and the way others have treated him since the charges were laid. He seems to be the only one left standing by Norton. Even Norton’s own brother believes he is guilty. Ronald believes that Norton’s intellect and everything he has contributed to the world in his field of study makes up for any “alleged” misconduct.
The bulk of the book is made up of Norton’s memoirs that he has written while in prison. They tell us of his childhood, his schooling, his career, his time on the island of Ivu’ivu, his discovery there, his resulting fame, his adoption of 43 children, and finally of his downfall. Norton believes he has done nothing wrong. But, what do you think?
I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts about this book in a coherent way, so instead…
1. Norton’s narrative was so compelling, I felt mesmerized by it. I found his character to be complex; sometimes wondering if he had some kind of social disorder, especially in the beginning when he talked about his childhood and the way he saw his parents. It seemed as though he thought himself to be better than them, even at a young age. This feeling of superiority and contempt for other people continues.
Then there were times that he allowed some emotions to show through; love for his brother, sympathy for the ‘Dreamers’ on the island, admiration for Tallent, and affection for his children. I still can’t figure him out.
2. This story was creepy, and made all the more creepy knowing that something creepy was coming. It makes you think twice about everything you’re reading; almost like you’re trying to read between the lines.
3. As I was reading it, I wondered how we were ever going to find out the truth about Norton. One of the narrators is the only man left who believes in Norton’s innocence, and the other is Norton himself. He’s not about to say anything criminalizing about himself. It all comes together quite cleverly. The author even had me thinking I had the whole thing wrong for a minute there.
4. The man in the book is based on a real person. Reading stories based on true events or people makes reading about them just that much more fascinating. And, in this case, more creepy.
5. The most horrifying thing about this novel, for me, was the utter destruction of the islands and the people living on them. Even more horrifying knowing that it really happens. Norton mentions feeling sad about the exploitation of the islands, but he also states that he would play his part in it all over again, without any consideration.
6. Norton’s childhood felt disturbing to me. His relationship with his parents didn’t seem normal – he seemed to despise them. His mother’s character especially intrigued me – I wanted to know more about her, but we don’t get that chance. I think she could have her own book.
7. His relationship with his brother was rocky. They were so close, and got along when they were young, but had completely different interests. Is this what eventually caused the gap between them, or was it something else? Did Owen sense something not quite right with his brother? He sure was quick to believe Victor about the sexual abuse.
8. Where did you go Tallent? Tallent just disappears, and we don’t know why. I would really love to know. Another book? And, what was he thinking that whole time they were on the island together? Did he already know everything, but wanted nothing to do with it? Why did he ask for a physician to come with him if he didn’t want the island disturbed? Norton didn’t seem to be doing much that Tallent and Esme couldn’t have done on their own.
9. The setting was described so well; I could feel it and smell it. There is a lot of time spent on the island, time spent talking about it’s vegetation and the way the people there lived. It could have been boring and tedious, but it wasn’t. It felt rich and alive.
I felt as if the jungle were constantly showing off to itself – every rock, every tree, every surface that would stay still was trimmed, bedecked, baroque with greenery: there were fistulas of bushes wrapped with creeping vines and spotted with moss and lichen and trees draped with great valances of hairy, hanging roots from some other unseen plant that lived, I imagined, high above the canopy. Things flew up from the floor and trickled down from the treetops. It was an exhausting performance that never ended, and for what? To prove the imperturbability of nature, I suppose – its unknowability, its fundamental lack of interest in humanity… On and on the jungle went , so unceasing in its excesses that I eventually became numb to them.
10. After the decimation of the islands, Norton attempts to ‘make amends’ by adopting children from the islands to raise at his home in Maryland. I found it fascinating to read about how he handled that many children, as well as his own feelings about them. He talks about their sweetness and the joy they brought him. His feelings changed as time went on, though; he got older, and his enthusiasm for them began to turn to resentment of the toll they were taking on him. I couldn’t help but wonder what their lives would have been like if he hadn’t brought them home. Does the good outweigh the bad? Were they better off being brought to the US, or left where they were? It is impossible to know.
… with each new child I acquired, I would irrationally think, This is the one. This is the one who will make me happy. This is the one who will complete my life… Shall I tell you how I was always wrong… and how although I was always wrong, I didn’t stop, I couldn’t stop.
And yet with each one, the feeling of pleasure I craved was ever briefer, more elusive, more difficult to conjure, and I was lonelier and lonelier, and finally they were evidence only of my losses, of my unanswerable sorrows.
… I have never demanded gratitude from my children, have never demanded that they thank me or behave well simply because I saved them. Indeed, I sometimes thought they would probably have been just as happy, if not happier, back in U’ivu, albeit with stomachs ballooned with malnutrition.
11. There are some big moral questions being asked in this book. Does immoral behaviour negate everything else a person has accomplished in their lives? Should geniuses/intellectuals be excused for their flaws more readily than the rest of us? Do we pursue knowledge at all costs?
12. Really, there is so much to talk about that you better just go and read the book. Once you have, come back and let me know if you think that Norton really knew what it meant to love, or if he and Ronald are both delusional.
… love, at least the pure love that so few of us will admit to feeling, is a complicated, dark, violent thing, an agreement not to be entered into lightly.
In this interview with Hanya Yanagihara, she talks about the process of writing her book, the inspiration behind it, and her favourite unreliable narrators.