As you probably remember, I was deeply moved by Yanagihara’s recent novel A Little Life, and was keen to read her first book, The People in the Trees. This received equally rave reviews when it came out in 2013 and at first glance suggests a tale of old-fashioned adventure, lost worlds and hacking through jungles. It focuses on an immunologist who, while on a field trip to a remote Micronesian island, makes a thrilling discovery. Evidence suggests that the members of a primitive, forgotten tribe may have found the Holy Grail of medical science: the key to eternal life.
We begin at the end of the story. The disgraced scientist Norton Perina has been imprisoned on the charge of abusing some of the fifty-odd children he has adopted from the Micronesian islands of U’ivu. As his life and reputation lie in tatters, his colleague Roland Kubodera tries to salvage what he can of Perina’s achievements. He invites the Nobel Prize winner to write his memoirs, telling the full story of his great discoveries in an attempt to redress the balance in the public mind. Kubodera edits the memoir, adds footnotes (Yanagihara is gloriously thorough in this scholarly pedantry) and publishes it to the world. Is it fair, he asks us, that a man who has contributed so much to human understanding should be condemned on such a tawdry accusation?
This is where alarm bells start ringing for the reader. In A Little Life, Yanagihara showed her startling ability to tell a story from several different angles, with conflicting priorities and beliefs in each. Here she restricts herself to two narrators, but uses them to dig far more deeply into the question of moral relativism. Her two narrators – Kubodera and Perina himself – want us to collude with them in agreeing that scientific brilliance should somehow excuse a spot of alleged abuse. For Perina, the world exists in shades of grey: there is no absolute right or wrong. His brilliance and insight excuses all foibles. Something which is taboo in one society is openly encouraged in another, which means that morality becomes merely a series of bourgeois customs that shouldn’t really apply to those seeking to expand the limits of the world. Reprehensible, arrogant and self-serving, he’s one of the most compelling characters I’ve met in a long time. The scary thing is that, for so much of the book, he sounds so utterly reasonable. One review I’ve read referred to him as a sociopath. That, too, may well be true.
But all this is a long way in the future for the young Perina when we see him as a boy, growing up in rural America just after the Depression, with a dreamy mother, an indifferent father and a twin brother, Owen, whose gifts are very different from Perina’s own. While Owen will become a poet, Perina will wed his life to the sciences and, in particular, to the study of disease. His first, uninspiring placement is in a tab testing viruses on animals, where we have a glimpse of his strangely dispassionate nature: part of his job is killing the test mice when their use is over, and he describes his method of murder in precise, neat prose. This tiny act of killing gives him a sense of achievement – a sense, perhaps, of possessing power over another living thing. And power, its different forms and different uses and different obligations, plays a strong role in what’s to follow.
For Norton, isolated from his fellow students and bored by his teachers, salvation comes in the form of an anthropological expedition to the remote archipelago of U’ivu. Here, with the distractingly beautiful Paul Tallent, and the dowdy Esme Duff, Perina sets off for the tiny island of Ivu’ivu – considered by the U’ivuans to be sacred. Some years ago, a hunter (a rare visitor to the island) saw something incredible: a feral group of people who seem to be part of a lost tribe. Tallent and Duff want to find this tribe and document them, and Perina is there as their medical officer. And they do indeed find their tribe, and begin to document its strange rituals, such as the a’ina’ina for the initiation of adolescent boys, and the vaka’ina to celebrate the attainment of sixty years of age. But these are not the wild people described by the hunter. The expedition has already found a few of these creatures wandering in the jungle and, as they study them, Perina begins to draw conclusions which prompt a startling and almost incredible leap of faith.
Now: who has power in such a situation? The chief of the tribe on Ivu’ivu, who hosts these strangers and allows them to investigate his people? The king, far away on distant U’ivu? This is socially accepted power, true. But what is this next to the power of the scientists? At one stroke they have the power to destroy the mystery of this tribe’s existence and to lay them open to crowds of treasure-hunters and journalists. One word from them can push a rare species to the brink of extinction and beyond. What right to they have to make such a revelation? On the other hand, considering that the tribe’s customs may have revelatory significance for the history of medicine, don’t they have an obligation to make their discoveries public? Doesn’t the greater good outweigh the needs of the few? It will certainly bring the scientists fame and fortune – or it will if they’re ready to exploit it, and Perina, keen to prove his significance, is willing to do so (to the horror of Tallent and Duff). After all, isn’t personal gain better than the traditions of some obscure tribe in the middle of nowhere?
This is a prickly forest of ethics, and Yanagihara negotiates its brambly paths with aplomb. Much of her story prompts discomfort and unease, but this is precisely why it makes such an impact. With her very first book, she seems to have taken the boldest, most uncompromising step she could imagine, and the novel is not only a superb character study, but also stuffed to the gills with scientific flair. (I am not a scientist, so perhaps I should rather say that it gives the impression of being formidably learned.) Yes, it leaves you feeling deeply uncomfortable; it shows the darker side of human nature, and it makes you feel ashamed of Western cultures’ arrogance in the face of other traditions. But it is an extremely fine book, written by an author who seems to have burst into existence fully-formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, and it is well worth reading.
It’s also surprisingly educational. After reading the book I discovered that Yanagihara had based Perina on a real figure: Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1976. He worked in virology, specifically on the kuru disease, which infected certain communities in New Guinea, and which he traced back to their ritual cannabalism of their dead. He lived and worked in the region for many years and brought back 56 boys to America from the South Pacific, adopting them as his children and funding their education. Later, he was accused of molesting them. It’s remarkable how the stories which seem the most incredible sometimes turn out to be almost true (with the exception of eternal life, alas). It’s amazing what you can learn from fiction.
So my conclusion? Read this. If you’ve enjoyed A Little Life, you must read this; and if you haven’t, read this first, as it will be a good primer for the even more emotionally crushing spirit of Yanaghiara’s most recent novel. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.