Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, is a hard book to classify. It’s part alternate history, in that the action of the story takes place in the 1950s-1990s and centers around events that didn’t happen in the real world. It’s part science fiction, in that it deals with a biological phenomenon that (so far as we know) isn’t real. It has an element of the crime novel or mystery to it, since the main character has been accused of a terrible crime and a close friend publishes his memoirs in the hope of clearing his name. Because of that framing device, the majority of the novel is written in the style of an annotated autobiography. And it also has elements of a psychological study, because we get a very deep (and sometimes unsettling) look into the main character’s mind.
The principal figure of the story is Abraham Norton Perina, a scientist who co-discovers a previously unknown tribe of people on a remote island in the south Pacific. In the course of interviewing the tribesmen, Perina and his colleagues discover something seemingly impossible: some of the islanders are well over 150 years old. While this revelation is shared by all members of the expedition, it’s Perina alone who figures out the cause of this seeming impossibility. When his findings are published in the scientific literature, they bring about radical changes to the lives of the islanders and also in Perina’s own life.
Yanagihara does an amazing job of depicting the fictional Micronesian island, populating it not just with the Opa’ivu’eke tribe but with a dazzling array of imagined plants and animals. Some of these are integrated into the Opa’ivu’eke culture (as one would expect), which gives the portion of the novel that takes place on the island a vivid sense of realism. She also delves into some complex philosophical and ethical questions: How should one react to an indigenous culture that engages in practices generally considered abhorrent by first-world nations? What is owed to an indigenous people when a medically useful substance is found on the land they inhabit (but isn’t necessarily something they consider themselves to own)?
There are two relatively small points that made the book less satisfying than it could have been. First, one mystery that arises in the course of the story is never resolved. Second, I would have liked to know more about the friendship between Perina and Ronald Kubodera, the man who publishes his memoirs. Kubodera greatly admires Perina, had a close personal relationship with him, and takes a big risk to help him when he believes that Perina has been wrongly accused. But we see very little of that relationship actually playing out in the novel. Aside from those two quibbles, however, this is an excellent book, with strong characterization, an interesting plot, and complex themes.