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The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

It is 1950 when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumored lost tribe. There he encounters a strange group of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind. Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success. But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

Hanya Yanagihara became critically acclaimed after her second novel, A Little Life, which I really enjoyed. I really wanted to dive back into her work so I had to get my hands on her debut, The People in the Trees. This book is a masterpiece. It’s beautifully written, although the subject matter is quite difficult. There are trigger warnings for pedophilia and sexual assault.

What really stood out to me about this novel is the structure and the writing. The novel was told as if it was a memoir written by the main character, Norton. Norton is a young, ambitious doctor who signs on for an expedition to a remote island in search of a lost tribe. He proves his scientific thesis for a prolonged life, but it comes at a cost with consequences.

Norton is a complicated character and almost always very difficult to deal with (in your head). He’s brash and haughty. Yet he’s very complex and the book highlights his complexity so well. I love that Hanya intentionally writes from his perspective and turn an eye onto themes such as colonialism and science. The way she weaves the two themes are brilliant. The way Hanya unweaves the plot and lay it at your feet is moving.

In all? The book is a masterpiece. The construction, the writing, and the themes — it’s an immersive read + experience.

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