"The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara & bruleed grapefruit
The People in the Trees is not for everyone.
The story of Dr. Norton Perina, a medical doctor-turned-researcher who travels to a small Micronesian island called Ivu'ivu and makes a staggering discovery, is winding and — at many turns — disturbing.
In the 1950s, Perina and his anthropologist colleagues chance upon a "lost" people — that is, lost to the outside world — and while there, discover that some among them live impossibly long lives. Some of them, the researchers believe, are more than 200 years old. The trio study these mysterious humans, who are physically preserved and in fact fit but in various stages of mental decline. Perina ultimately deduces that their ingestion of an otherwise unknown turtle grants them their long lives while robbing them of the things that makes them human.
Perina becomes famous for his discovery, eventually winning a Nobel Prize and building his career at the National Institutes of Health. But his fame is tinged with loss; pharmaceutical companies hoping to bottle immortality transform and ultimately destroy the people and cultures of Ivu'ivu and its sister islands — which form the island nation of U'ivu— in search of the famed turtles, who go extinct in a matter of years.
For the adventure-minded, this plotline in and of itself would be enough to sustain a novel. But it is The People in the Trees' other plot that kept me turning pages, looking for clues and resolution.
The book opens with a news clipping. "Renowned Scientist Faces Charges of Sexual Abuse," the headline reads. The ensuing article reveals the abuse allegation comes from one of the children Perina adopted from U'ivu many years earlier. A prologue written by a Perina devotee and colleague introduces the meat of the novel, the memoirs Perina writes from prison. The middle 90 percent of the novel comes direct from Perina, with at times lengthy footnotes packed with context and further evidence of the devotee's love.
This story is based loosely on the story of Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, a real researcher who studied in Papau New Guinea and earned prison time for sexually abusing one of his adopted children. Though The People in the Trees is fiction, it often feels real, so developed are the characters.
The People in the Trees is an ideal book club pick because its plots and subplots offer so many questions ripe for exploration and debate: How desirable is immortality? Which of its associated costs is the worst? Who decides what is moral and what isn't? Is morality defined by culture, or is it absolute?
I hope I can convince you to read this admittedly disturbing book. I need to talk to someone about it.
Make sure you don't skip the epilogue of this book. It will answer several of your questions and leave you (I hope) slack-jawed with disgust. You will absolutely need a palate cleanser once you turn the final pages. This bruleed grapefruit should do the trick.
- Cardamom seeds (optional)
- Mini torch
Slice grapefruit in half and set aside. Remove the seeds from a few cardamom pods and crush to a fine powder in a mortar and pestle. Mix cardamom powder into a few teaspoons of sugar.
Top grapefruit halves with cardamom sugar. Some will sink into the grapefruit, so work quickly. Using a small torch, melt the sugar until it caramelizes. Continue until the sugar reaches your desired level of meltedness or darkness, then grab a spoon and enjoy.