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Book Review

‘The People in the Trees’ by Hanya Yanagihara

A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that most Americans would not want to live beyond 100 years, even if advances in medicine made that possible. This may seem surprising given the amount of time and money people spend on diets, exercises, supplements, and other treatments that promise increased longevity. Perhaps we suspect the fountain of youth will be tainted, that immortality would have a Faustian hitch.

In Hanya Yanagihara’s fascinating and multilayered debut novel, “The People in the Trees,” certain natives of Ivu’ ivu, a fictional Micronesian island, live well beyond 100 years. Only those who reach the age of 60 eat the meat of a local turtle, after which their bodies remain vigorous for centuries. The problem is, their minds deteriorate rapidly, so they become, like the turtles, feeble beings encased in hardy shells. The “dreamers,” as these elders are known, are banished to a remote part of the island, shunned by their mortal, but mentally sharp, kinsmen.

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A. Norton Perina, the novel’s protagonist and main narrator, first encounters the dreamers when he joins an anthropological expedition to Ivu ’ivu in 1950, shortly after graduating from Harvard Medical School. Perina realizes early that he lacks the empathy required to be a clinician. He’s interested in researching diseases but not in taking care of people who have them. He smuggles some of the turtle meat back to the States and feeds it to laboratory animals who, like the dreamers, become spectacularly long-lived but brain-damaged. His identification of the biochemical basis of these effects ultimately earns him a Nobel Prize.

Perina, though, turns out to be as evil as he is brilliant. He adopts dozens of children from the island, one of whom accuses him of sexual abuse. He’s found guilty, and Perina — loosely based on Nobel laureate D. Carleton Gajdusek, discoverer of the brain disease kuru (similar to mad cow disease) and also a convicted child molester — narrates his story from a prison cell. Perina’s manuscript is edited by his protégé, Dr. Ronald Kubodera, one of the few people who remain loyal to Perina after his conviction. Kubodera supplies an introduction, a postscript, a timeline, a glossary, and copious footnotes to Perina’s text.

A work of medical science fiction involving magic turtle meat, pedophilia, a not particularly likable main character, and a convoluted structure — two unreliable narrators — might sound unpromising.

But Yanagihara, an editor with Condé Nast Traveler, is like a chef who manages to whip up a divine dish from an unlikely combination of ingredients. Her storytelling is masterful. Perina’s leisurely — sometimes too leisurely — descriptions of his troubled childhood, the flora and fauna of Ivu’ ivu, and of his years as a single father of over 40 children are so rich in sensory detail that the unbelievable becomes believable, and the reader forgets that Perina, Ivu ’ivu, and Kubodera’s meticulous footnotes are all imaginary.

Stories of incursions into remote and primitive places — from “The Tempest” to “King Kong” — read as allegory, and “The People in the Trees” is no exception. Perina’s explorations of Ivu’ ivu can be seen through a psychoanalytic lens: His twisted psyche is revealed along with the secrets of the island he studies. Yanagihara’s painful portrayal of the decimation of an indigenous way of life is also a commentary on colonialism.

This hugely ambitious and entertaining novel asks tough questions. Can a bad person be a great scientist? And, particularly relevant as we continue to grapple with how to distribute finite health care resources, should we try to prolong life indefinitely at any cost?

Dr. Suzanne Koven, who writes the “In Practice” column for the Globe, can be reached at inpracticemd@gmail.com.
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