I will admit that I judged this book by it's cover - it's beautiful. I was also intrigued by a small blurb in a selection journal, so I was happy indeed to receive a copy of The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. The book is the story of a Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, an immunologist known as "Norton." Norton discovered something called "Selene Syndrome," a physical condition where the victim's body remains youthful (for decades longer than the average lifespan) while the mind degrades. The story line starts and ends with Norton's conviction for child sexual abuse. This is not a spoiler alert just a warning. The book is divided into 3 parts: the Preface, the Memoirs of A. Norton Pereina (written while he was in prison) and the Epilogue. While Norton writes the biography his notes are edited by his lifelong friend and colleague Dr. Kubodera.
Norton was born in a small town where he lived with his "dreamy" mother, uninterested father and his twin brother Owen. Norton and his brother thought their mother was worthless and spent time playing tricks on her to the point where she thought she was losing her mind. When his mother died at at young age, from a mosquito bite according to the local doctor, Norton's interest in diseases was born. Norton's father was also unremarkable according to the brothers, but his Aunt Sybil was just the ticket. She fostered Norton's interest in science which propels him on to medical school.
At graduation, Norton is invited to join a research project under the direction of Philip Tallent, a famous researcher. The project will be done on the remote Micronesian islands of Ivu'ivu. There are several small islands in this group including an island that is forbidden. The mythology of this island is that it is filled with people who are immortal. All the islands in the chain revere the turtle, whose flesh is said to contain the property to confer immortality. There are some instances of behavior by the tribes during their ceremonies that are considered illegal in the US. This is the heart of Norton's problems.
The storyline winds it's way around the study of the indigenous people, their customs and the problems that occur when a group of people who think they are superior come to the island: first Norton and his various studies and then once the news of his finding goes public, the pharmaceutical companies and the other less disciplined groups arrive. The book is well written. I had to remind myself several times that I was not reading a nonfiction work of any kind. (I actually started to look up information on the main characters!) The book has a feel of a nonfiction work, but definitely reads like fiction. There are footnotes galore, which are used as asides to the main text.
I liked this book. But some of the subject matter (child sexual abuse) can be disconcerting. It is not the main focus of the book. The book also deals with the ramifications of inflicting one person's mores on another and what happens when one group of people use another as a research opportunity. There are plenty of subjects to think and talk about here.
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