‘The People in the Trees’ by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the TreesstarstarstarIn 1950, a young Nobel prize winning doctor named Norton Perina embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumoured lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery is not that simple and it comes at a terrible cost to the islanders and their way of life.

This anthropological adventure story is a dark and disturbing tale of power and its abuses, loosely based on real events. Not everyone who goes to remote regions of the world to do good work is actually good. And not everyone who does bad things, thinks that their actions are bad. The unreliable narrator in this story always puts a positive spin on things, but the author skillfully lets the reader know that all is not as it seems and it’s not hard to work out the truth. Yanagihara has written something both elegant and terrible. I am actually looking forward to other books by this author because I did enjoy her brilliant crafting of the story, although her writing may not be for everyone.

The novel is at times beautifully descriptive and at times so graphically awful that if it was a movie I would have covered my eyes and looked away (hard to do when reading a book!). So this is a reading experience not for the feint of heart, but if you can handle it, quite unique. Some people tolerate dark and provocative literature better than others, and some even prefer it. In my opinion literature is a good place to confront the dark (from the safety of an armchair), especially for children. It creates understanding and empathy and raises issues that though we may not like to think about, are certainly part of our broken world.

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