Dr Abraham Norton Perreira was once known as the man who discovered the secret of immortality on a remote Micronesia island. Now, he is in the news for a very different reason, having just been convicted of sexually abusing one of his adopted children. Nonetheless, Perreira’s closest friend and colleague has taken it upon himself to publish Perreira’s memoirs, telling the story of his life and career.
Before she wrote A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara penned her first novel – The People in the Trees. Although I didn’t know it at the time of reading, the story is inspired by the life of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who both made a great scientific discovery and was later convicted of sexually abusing his adopted children. You can find out more about Gajdusek through this BBC documentary on Youtube – but be warned that it’s upsetting stuff.
Returning to the fictional side of things, The People in the Trees is presented as Perreira’s memoirs, and the majority of the novel is written from his perspective. We don’t find out until the end whether or not he is guilty of the crimes for which has been convicted, but we soon get the measure of his personality. Yanagihara has done well to deliver a narrative that is eminently readable, told from the perspective of someone who is both unsympathetic and dislikeable.
Right from the start, Perreira’s personality is clear. He expresses dislike and disdain for almost everyone he meets – his family are dullards, his colleagues mundane. Although he admits that he failed to apply himself in medical school, he nonetheless retains an unshakeable belief in his own superiority. The dots may not be explicitly joined, but as readers we are left to infer a certain unreliability in his narration – after all, it seems unlikely that Perreira could be completely surrounded by jealous, incompetent idiots.
Much of the narrative concerns Perreira’s journey to the Micronesian islands of U’ivu and Ivu’ivu, the site of his remarkable discovery. This part of the story has a heavy dose of supernatural realism, concerning as it does an elusive tribe whose elders attain amazing longevity by consuming a rare species of turtle. The subject matter feels a little unbelievable, but it meshes well with the dreamlike quality of Perreira’s journey through the jungle. From mango-like fruits writhing with worms to the rituals of the Ivu’ivuan tribe, every aspect of Perreira’s trek is richly described and easy to imagine. One slight annoyance is the liberal use of the invented U’ivuan language, which includes lots of apostrophes and difficult to pronounce words – stopping to think about how to read phrases like “opa’ivu’eke” and “mo’o kua’au” can often pull one out of the narrative.
As I mentioned above, it’s only in the epilogue that we discover the truth behind Perreira’s conviction, but there are plenty of hints scattered throughout. His lack of concern over a sexual coming-of-age ceremony for Ivu’ivuan boys, and a later sexual encounter with one of those boys, are clear red flags for what might happen later in his life. On the more age-appropriate side, Perreira is clearly infatuated with the expedition’s leader – Paul Tallent – but his feelings remain unexpressed and unrequited.
Despite being less than half the length of A Little Life, The People in the Trees still manages to pack a lot in. As well as the sections mentioned above, the novel also deals with the aftermath of the expedition, both in terms of Perreira’s scientific work, and his adoption of numerous U’ivuan children. Although each of these segments differs in tone, both the quality of the writing and Perreira’s narrative voice remain consistent throughout.
Although it’s not at the level of A Little Life, The People in the Trees is still worth reading. Yanagihara’s protagonist may be entirely dislikeable, but his narrative remains engaging.
Addendum: LGBT+ in Yanagihara’s books
One thing I forgot to cover in my review of A Little Life was the LGBT+ themes that ran through the book. The novel included both gay and sexually fluid main characters, in addition to lesbian supporting characters and passing mentions of other sexual orientations and gender identities. In contrast to some of the darker themes of abusive relationships and child sexual exploitation that appear in the novel, there is actually some positivity. The main characters are all accepting of each other’s sexuality, and the most loving and enduring relationships in the novel is between two men.
In contrast, The People in the Trees is a little different. Perreira never states his sexuality outright in his memoirs, but we see throughout the novel that he is largely uninterested and disdainful of women, whilst all of his infatuations and sexual encounters are with men and boys. What’s unfortunate here is that we have this one big negative portrayal of a gay man in the book, and, unlike A Little Life, nothing positive to counterbalance it. Arguably, Perreira’s brother offers a more normal and balanced depiction of a gay man, but he is only peripherally involved in the novel.