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.
37 thoughts on “The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara”
Sounds like an interesting book. I hadn’t heard of it before.
It is very good. Disturbing, though, but you don’t mind disturbing, do you?
No, not a bit!
You should read it, then, and let us know what you think! 🙂
I’ll put it on my list!
I hadn’t been all that keen on this book but your review has me reconsidering! Sounds gripping.
I really didn’t want to put it down once I was into it. I definitely recommend it to people who don’t mind their fiction a bit disturbing.
Great review, Naomi! So glad you found lots to talk about–and those covers are gorgeous.
There is so much to talk about! There wouldn’t always be answers to everything, though. Boy, I wish i knew what had happened to Tallent! Glad I finally read it. 🙂
I’m getting chills just thinking about this book. The framing device is genius, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a more compelling and unsettling character. So glad you enjoyed it!
I agree – this book was crazy smart. It makes me want to read her newest book, but I don’t think I’m ready yet…
Sounds strange and dark but fascinating. I’ve already ordered it.
It is all of those things! I look forward to hearing what you think!
Ooh, I was looking forward to this review. The plot sounds thrilling and the themes explored very compelling. Since you were reading between the lines and the author has a thing for unreliable narrators, should I assume this narrator is questionable?
The thing about this books is that both narrators are questionable, and there are only two. So, I kept wondering how the truth was going to come out. It was very well done!
I’ve seen both her books around, but I never knew the premise of the first one! I’m definitely interested. I didn’t read the main part of your review for fear of spoilers, but you mentioned to Kay that it’s disturbing? Was it difficult to read?
I actually found it very easy to read – his voice and story were so compelling. It is disturbing in a ‘creepy man’ kind of way, but you spend most of the book just waiting for it. I don’t think you would have trouble reading it.
Sounds great! I will put it on my TR list.
I stand amazed at how many books you read. Your reviews make one want to read all these amazing books. I don’t know how you do it and still have a life. I applaud you. You give so many writers out there courage to continue writing. Including me. And hope. A lot of us from time to time feel like giving up because we get depressed about the lack of readers. I want to thank you for that. Was just wondering how many words you read a minute.
Thank you, Don. I never really thought of it that way before (giving writers a reason to write).
I’m really not a fast reader, I’m just consistent. I’ve done those reading tests for fun and always come out as just average. There are so many book bloggers out there who read a lot more than I do, and I wonder how they do it, just like you’re wondering how I do it. Most of my reading happens at night after the kids go to bed. I rarely do any work once they’re in bed, even if my house is a shambles, because it is my time to read and I take it. My house suffers for it, but I think it’s worth it. Sometimes, i get a little reading time in the afternoon if everything else is under control. And, I usually stay up too late at night, reading. (This is getting worse as my kids get older and have later bedtimes. I don’t know what I’ll do when their bedtimes are the same as mine.)
I have the same problem reading everyone else’s reviews – I want to red every book they write about. My to-read list is in the hundreds. At least I will always have lots of good books to choose from!
And, keep on writing – the more writers we have, the more good stuff we get to read (or, at least, dream about reading)!
One thing is for sure. You are not just average. Also I think you are setting a wonderful example for your children. Mommy reads. That is the single most recommended thing for a parent to do if they want their kids to read. 🙂
Oh, Mommy reads all right. Sometimes I wonder if they think I’m normal. Am I the only Mommy around who reads instead of cleans? I do a lot of cooking and baking, though, because food comes next after books. 🙂
When my sister and i complained about cleaning, my mother asked us, “Just why did I have children? Oh, it was to clean the house.”
That’s what my Dad always used to say, too!
I had no idea this was based on a real person/events! I had it on my shelf for a while, but when I tried to read it it didn’t grab me. Clearly I should have tried harder to read it.
Once I got into Norton’s memoir, and he started talking about his mother, I was hooked.
I just read A Little Life a few weeks ago now…she is certainly a compelling writer! I do want to get to People in the Trees because I’ve only heard fantastic things about it – you solidified it too! I might need to wait a wee bit longer though – Little Life had its share of disturbing content too so I’m still in my need for not so intense reads. 😉
I feel the same way about A Little Life – I think I’ll wait a bit. From what I hear, though, it sounds more intense and disturbing than The People in the Trees.
Sounds like a wild read. Not sure what to think. but I might need to stay away from disturbing here. Or at least for awhile.
The book isn’t relentlessly disturbing. It’s more of a slow build-up knowing that there must be something coming. Until then, I found the entire back story very absorbing.
Finally read your review. We both talked about impossible questions. Yanagihara is a really brave writer because she takes on multiple impossible questions, and doesn’t really answer any of them, but it still works.
The other thing I really wonder about is Norton’s mom. She was like the original mokouma (can’t remember the spelling…) – she was just so spacey and not really “there,” but presumably it wasn’t because she was 200 years old or anything, so what was her deal?
I would really love to Know! Maybe it’s the key to everything! That, and Tallent’s disappearance. Argh.
I think one of the reasons I couldn’t put the book down is because I was hoping she might give us more insight into all those questions, yet at the same time, I knew it was impossible. So well done.
Yes yes yes yes yes yes to all of this. I just finished reading it and I’ve had this tab open since before I began haha! His mother could absolutely have her own book. She was fascinating and it felt like there was so much more to all these characters, which makes them feel both human and mythical at the same time. Norton is so complex and stunted, impossible to pin down. Checking out the interview you linked now, thanks!
I’m so glad you liked it. Really, the more I think about it, the more I realize how complex and brilliant the book is. Check out Laura’s review at Reading In Bed – she talks about the whole empathy thing and all the impossible questions.
I’ve just read the first part of your review, because this one is still on my TBR, but I couldn’t help but see the hyperlink to “real”. !! Did you know it wasn’t entirely fictional when you started to read? Isn’t it suprising when you get to the end of a novel and discover that parts of it were rooted in history and you were simply unaware? I’m thinking of two books that I’ve read very recently, but by Canadian authors, but I shan’t name them, because you might rather be surprised by the notes/acknowledgements just as I was (haven’t noticed either title in your reading so far but they are probably on your radar).
I didn’t know until the end that it was based on a real person. And, yes, I love it when that happens. I don’t know if I prefer to know in advance, or if it’s more fun to find out afterwards. Sometimes, it can be distracting as you read, trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not.
Now, I am very curious about which books you are talking about. If I don’t read them soon, you’ll have to let me know!