This is a strange book, but not as strange as I had anticipated it being. The fictional story of a young man (Norton Perina) who tags along with an anthropological research group into the jungles of the island of Ivu'ivu in search of a lost tribe is unique. Add to that the discovery of “the fountain of youth” through the consumption of a local turtle and you've got a story teeming with magical possibilities. Though the tribe has its share of strange customs, and the turtle itself particularly stands out, the story is a fairly straight-forward narrative, a biography about the man who went on to win a Nobel, and subsequently was jailed for molestation charges.
In the case of The People in the Trees, the novel's best quality is also its one downfall. I love that the entire story is told as a memoir. It works exceptionally well. It allows a minor character, editor and friend of Perina, to pepper Perina's memoir with what could be unreliable narration. At the same time, it makes the whole story feel more credible. Footnotes abound providing ample information both real and fictional. Yanagihara made a very wise decision choosing this format for the book.
At the same time, the structure was not always true to itself. Especially toward the end, the true biographical nature of the book was sacrificed for the story. The tone of the memoir no longer matches the media. In order to forward the story, the once professional Perina becomes overly confessional and sentimental. Would Perina include such elaborate scenes of dialogue from his personal life in a book he intends on releasing to the public? What friend of Perina's would allow such personal details? Though it would've taken some work, I think the author could've sacrificed some of the clearer story and stayed true to the biographical format of the work. Yes, it would've forced her readers to make their own conjectures, possibly misunderstanding the novel, or disliking it because of its unclear intent, but it would've fit. I think Yanagihara is a talented enough author to have pulled it off.
In spite of and because of its challenging form, The People in the Trees is an exceptional debut. It elicits questions about morality from its readers on many different levels. Certainly not a book for the casual reader seeking a riveting story, The People in the Trees is a slow build up of “what if”s and “what about”s. And, if you're “fortunate” enough to find Perina's opa'ivu'eke turtle, you'll have hundreds of years of think these questions over.