The people in the trees, Hanya Yanagihara’s disconcerting debut novel, could be described through a series of lurid headlines. “Secret of eternal youth discovered on unspoiled Pacific island by scientist Norton Perina”. “Tribal initiation ceremony exposed as teen gang-rape shocker”. “Fat cats turn earthly paradise into living hell”. “Nobel prize winner Perina arrested after adopting island children in paedo abuse shame”.
So far, so Jimmy Savile. What elevates this debut is Yanagihara’s audacious marriage of an ambitious, multi-layered structure with an enigmatic, stand-offish narrator. The mood of glacial uncertainty owes much to Yanagihara’s leading man, Norton Perina, whose controversial history is loosely based on real-life medical researcher Carleton Gajdusek. Perina feels like he has just stepped out of the salon, albeit of an existentialist kind. Like Camus’ L’Étranger, this is part self-hagiography, part intellectual mystery and part confession too.
A characteristic Perina utterance describes his attitude to animal testing: “I rather enjoyed killing the mice”, he admits casually. What unsettles is the elusive tone, not exactly bloodthirsty nor free of murderous delight. He is a cold fish whose motives are opaque, but he is not incapable of wild flashes of heat – as if life microwaves him without his noticing. He ignites intellectually and sexually on the Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu, home to a tribe with seemingly extended lifespan. Like other colonisers before him, it seems that distance from his everyday existence licenses Perina to behave as he never would at home. The first hint is his instant infatuation with Paul Tallent, the dashing anthropologist who leads the expedition. Perina’s attraction, seasoned with a splash of self-loathing, is counterbalanced by an equal and opposite repulsion to Esme, the team’s other researcher.
This combination of homoeroticism and overt misogyny lends the novel a disorienting velocity. The narrative is itself an act of charged male collusion. Perina’s autobiography is edited by Ronald Kubodera, his acolyte, protector, and besotted lover – not that Perina knows or cares. It is apt that a story about peripheral places, arcane rites and repressed feelings is shaped by footnotes and excisions. The defining revelation, about Perina’s relationship with the Ivu’ivuan children he rescues (or grooms), is deleted only to be tacked on in the appendix.
The result is a novel of formidable complexity that refuses to sit up and beg to be loved, or even liked. Yanagihara’s provocative portrayals of Promethean scientific hubris, colonisation and cultural relativism are refracted through Perina’s ego, intellect and slippery motivations. Is he a force for good or evil, a dangerous innocent or a disingenuous sociopath, a genius or a criminal?
Whether one enjoys The People in the Trees is, perhaps, beside the point. This is an absorbing, intelligent and uncompromising novel which beguiles and unnerves. The first memorable novel of 2014 is already here.
"The People in the Trees" By Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic, £12.99) Order at the discounted price of £10.99 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/ bookshop or call 0843 0600 030