The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara, Doublday, 2013, 362 pp
Culture clash! A research scientist of dubious moral character discovers a source of extreme longevity in the meat of a turtle on an unspoiled Pacific island. It is one of the oldest tales on earth: the serpent in the garden; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the discovery of fire; the splitting of the atom; test tube genetics; information technology. What will those humans do next?
I happen to like the story of man's perilous road to scientific knowledge. I would not for a moment dream of seeking to halt it. My world view is comprised of what I call "optimistic anarchy" meaning that I have a slender but sturdy belief that mankind can work out its destiny into eternity.
But we need such tales of caution as Ms Yanagihara presents in The People in the Trees. Ann Patchett told hers in State of Wonder. Barbara Kingsolver tells hers in almost every book she writes. Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy is another example. The People in the Trees has as its mad scientist Norton Perina, a suitably complex character. He goes too far, though he wins a Nobel Prize, and his attempts to make amends are foiled by his own troubled nature.
The author chose to have Perina's story told by a worshipful associate, a man who is blind to Perina's faults and whose certainty that genius trumps, even excuses, behavioral lapses is clearly stated. The brilliant writing in the novel enables us to see through this hagiography. Actually she creates a double veil for us to peer through, since the associate is the transcriber and editor of Perina's memoirs.
Not for the squeamish, The People in the Trees reveals tribal custom, jungle living, and the scientific method in full living color and detail. It raises just about every conceivable question about the fine lines between science and spirituality, ceremony and abuse, sanity and madness, progress and destruction.
Of all the Tournament of Books contenders this year, I found this one the hardest to read in terms of horrific scenes and yet the most rewarding for it provocative nature.
(The People in the Trees is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in April 2014.)