Daily Recco, March 17: The People in the Trees, battling immortality and immorality

Author Hanya Yanagihara’s absorbing and memorable debut novel deals with the concepts of immortality laced with the immorality of the abuse of paternal power.

 |  3-minute read |   17-03-2021
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Would you want to be immortal? Would you still want to be immortal if the quest for it led down a path you thought was immoral? Would you consider an act immoral if another culture respects it as their tradition? Further, would immortality be acceptable if it merely preserves the body and not the mind or the thoughts?

These are some of the conflicting questions that rise up your gut as you read the unputdownable novel — The People in the Trees. In her impressive debut published in 2013, American novelist and travel writer Hanya Yanagihara bases the lead character on the life, research, and child molestation conviction of the disgraced Nobel laureate Daniel Gajdusek.


*Trigger Warning: Paedophilia and child sexual abuse*

The story opens in the 1990s, where Nobel Laureate Abraham Norton Perina is in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting his own children. He starts writing his memoirs in a bid to put out his side of the story, urged by his colleague and acolyte who subsequently annotates and edits the memoirs. 

This takes us back by about half a century to the story of Norton’s life, when he was a medical student. Norton joins an anthropological expedition to a (fictional) Micronesian island. The tribe that lives on the island, who Norton and his crew call the “Dreamers”, live long lives that last well over a century. They achieve this by consuming the meat of a local and endemic turtle which gives them long lives but takes away their mental stability.

The expedition also discovers that the Dreamers have a ritual in which a 10-year-old boy is raped. This sets off a deep dive into questions of morality. While some members of the expedition find the ritual disturbing, Norton is clinical about it and terms it merely a “cultural difference”. He too ends up having a sexual encounter with the boy.

As with many experiences of a colonial nature, Norton smuggles the flesh of the turtle and some Dreamers to America to conduct experiments. He gains recognition for the research he conducts on them. However, pharmaceutical companies from the “civilised world” quickly colonise and decimate the island, its inhabitants, and the turtles.

Norton adopts some of the abandoned children from the island. One of these children later exposes that Norton raped him when he was a child, which is what lands Norton in jail.

The novel is unnerving as it makes you question the nature of morality, which many of us are used to painting in simplistic tones of black and white. It is for this reason that The People in the Trees will keep you thinking even when you put the book down.

Whatever conclusions you may reach about morality or whatever trains of thought the book may set off, it would probably be safe to say this is a book that runs deeper than its pages. Is the morality/immorality of the lead character a metaphor for colonialism? How far can some cultural practices go before they can be deemed an affront to morality? Are morals and traditions bound to inevitably clash at some point? The People in the Trees is a captivating read that will leave you unsettled with each page you turn.

Also Read: The real Beasts of No Nation


Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

The author writes on wildlife, environment, gender issues, science, health, books and a host of other topics. A professional journalist and a passionate environmentalist. Former Assistant Editor, DailyO.

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