Fresh out of medical school in 1950, Dr. Norton Perina longs to study disease over working with patients. When given the opportunity to accompany anthropologist Paul Tallent on an expedition to Ivu'ivu, an unexplored island in Micronesia, Dr. Perina gladly accepts. Over time, the Americans discover a group of islanders that live much longer than average humans, but with progressively declining mental health. Believing the long lifespan of the Ivu'ivu is caused by a turtle native to the island, Dr. Perina brings one back to the states, setting off a chain of events that eventually lead to both a Nobel Prize and his imprisonment.
Hanya Yanagihara's first novel is framed by narration from Dr. Ronald Kubodera, Dr. Perina's protégé, who has received a manuscript of the Dr.’s autobiography, which he wrote from prison. The majority of The People in The Trees is made up of Dr. Perina's autobiography with clarifying footnotes from Dr. Kubodera, detailing his childhood, schooling and study of the people of Ivu'ivu. Yanagihara's creative framework allows the novel to read more like a lyrical diary than a piece of fiction.
Make no mistake, peeking inside that diary is not always pleasant. It’s clear from the start of the The People in the Trees that Dr. Perina is an unreliable narrator. He’s in prison for heinous crimes, some of which he's willing to claim while he sidesteps others. Beginning with his time among the people of Ivu'ivu and particularly more so after, Dr. Perina's moral compass is constantly skewed, making many of his decisions quite unsettling to read.
But the novel's difficult subjects make it possible for Yanagihara to highlight themes like discovery, morality and humanity in complicated questions that beg to be turned over and discussed. The amount of research and careful planning that went into this debut is remarkable, and Yanagihara should prepare for the mountains of praise she is sure to receive.