And then there would be Eve, an explorer searching for nothing, adrift in a sea without any memory of what she had once sought or of what she wished to return to. (p. 258)
When Dr. Norton Perina first meets Eve deep in the jungle of a small, isolated Micronesian island called Ivu’ivu, he knows that he’s witnessing something truly alien. Her movements are inhuman, even zombie-like, her behavior unnatural, demented; she’s more of a creature than a person, “…as if she had once, long ago, been taught how to behave as a human and was slowly, steadily forgetting” (p. 141). She is called “Eve, the first woman of her kind” (p. 147). What Perina later finds is that there are others like her; she is a mo’o kua’au, an Ivu’ivuan word that translates to “without voice” or “without conversation”, and more roughly to “without friends” or “without love” – they are “the dreamers.” These lost souls and the genesis of their condition – a rare, mythologized species of turtle – will become the focus of Perina’s scientific research. Their exploitation will bring him fame and ultimately destroy a civilization.
Can nothing in this jungle behave as it ought? … Why must nothing obey the laws of nature? Why must everything point so heavily toward the existence of enchantment? (p. 134)
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara mainly takes place on the island of Ivu’ivu, where Perina travels as part of a research team on an anthropological expedition. The dense tropical jungle, which climbs up the mountainside and brushes up to the ocean’s edge, saturates the entire island. Every shade of green exists in densely packed and pervasive flora, which fuse into a single living entity, a voracious beast. The oppressive humidity gives weight to the air and like the heat of an animal’s breath, the jungle exhales suffocating oxygen. Everything on the island seems imbued with magic or alien. The strange manama fruit – a supple, juicy thing, oblong and pink in color – contains hunono worms that wriggle like maggots beneath its skin, creating bulges and ripples that give the whole thing movement. But, as beauty is often hidden in unexpected places, the worms metamorphose into “the most beautiful butterflies” ever seen (p. 133), and they’re only found on this strange little island that constantly wavers between the wondrous and disturbing.
The sun had almost set and the entire forest was awash, ghostlike, with an eerie reddish light, the air seeming to thicken with a bright haze of blood. (p. 138)
Yanagihara’s ability to paint in words is exceptional, her imagery so genuine and profound as to breathe life into the island itself and its inhabitants. The cloistered civilization of Ivu’ivu sets the stage for a story of empirical discovery and existential reflection. The story is part mystery, part scientific inquiry, and heavily weighted in anthropological and psychological interpretation. The novel works because of its construction, despite having a highly unlikeable protagonist, Perina, who is arrogant, self-centered, and seemingly devoid of personal insight. He may be the protagonist, but Ivu’ivu – the island and its people – have more of a presence than Perina or anyone else.
Pinpointing the main theme is challenging, as the story is so multifaceted, has so many layers. However, cultural relativism is the prominent feature and central to all other concepts addressed. The contrasts between Ivu’ivuan and Western cultures are evident, and ultimately these two worlds will collide with irreparable consequences. Yanagihara’s enthralling narrative will challenge conventional notions of “right and wrong,” revealing the significance of social constructs.
Perhaps the most striking contrast to Western canon is in Ivu’ivuan sexuality. Their society does not bifurcate sexual preference into hetero, homo, and bisexual categories. Rather than complicate sexuality by drawing lines and establishing rules, Ivu’ivuans are promiscuous and unfettered – “monogamy” seems a loose term in the village. Having sex is both acknowledged and praised, and often performed in public. Homosexuality is not at all unusual; in fact, it is rooted in tradition as part of a rite of passage. Each young Ivu’ivuan boy of a certain age undergoes a coming of age ceremony, which is shocking to an outsider and extremely upsetting but also proffers an examination of moralism. Here Yanagihara describes the indescribable to suggest that morality itself is relative, even in the most extreme circumstances. When Perina witnesses the ceremony, it is a pivotal moment that sets into motion revelations about his repressed sexuality. He will internally struggle with feelings of shame derived from Western prudence, and the raw power of carnal desire.
The practice of polygamy is fitting with the overall Ivu’ivuan society, which is a communal family, working collectively. There are marriages, nuclear families, but they are part of the greater whole. Their way of life is organized and prepared, a well-oiled machine that every villager helps maintain. Industriousness is greatly valued, whereas materialism is essentially nonexistent, so everything and everyone has a defined purpose. In fact, Ivu’ivu seems a happy place, idealistically simple… But, it’s also a place of violence. Most often, the violence serves a purpose, in hunting or combat, but one scene stands out, which vividly depicts a group of hunters beating a sloth to death for its meat, but also for sport, taking pleasure in its suffering as it cries in pain. Such sadism is not confined to the island of Ivu’ivu, as humans have always been capable of incredible cruelty. In this way, and in others, Yanagihara renders Ivu’ivu a microcosm of humankind, demonstrating the universality of basic human nature.
And then the opa’ivu’eke’s head was bouncing into my lap, its black eyes still staring at me, its blood weeping onto my shorts. (p. 225)
No discussion of The People in the Trees would be complete without the opa’ivu’eke – that mystical turtle indigenous to Ivu’ivu. A central figure in the Ivu’ivuan theory of creation, Opa’ivu’eke, the first of his kind, was an old, giant turtle and a friend of the Gods. He was an honored storyteller and messenger who kindled a romance between two lonely Gods who then created the world – Ivu’ivu and its surrounding islands – along with its inhabitants, humankind. The descendants of Opa’ivu’eke, which inhabit Ivu’ivu as turtles named after their creator, are the lynchpin of the whole book – they are the reason for the existence of the dreamers, and in doing so they give life and death meaning, each with its own purpose. On the island of Ivu’ivu, there’s always a purpose.
For a minute we rested, both of us savoring the air, the hushing of the trees, and the simple, stupid fact of being alive. (p. 266-7, when Perina encounters an opa’ivu’eke)
Perina will come to find that the dreamers, the mo’o kua’au, those lonely wanderers of the Ivu’ivuan jungle, are cursed with a gift – immortality. By consuming the flesh of an opa’ivu’eke, the body’s aging process is dramatically slowed, so that physical fitness is maintained with little decay. However, whatever process prevents the body from aging is ineffective in the brain, so over time, the mind melts away into nothingness while the body lives on. The dreamers can no longer communicate, they have no memories or sense of self, and so they have no ability for companionship. They live in eternal isolation, wandering the earth in body but not mind, as ghosts of who they once were – this is the dreamers’ paradox. Those gatekeepers of immortality, the opa’ivu’eke, descendants of the renowned messenger of Ivu’ivuan lore who united the Gods to birth humanity, they symbolize communication and companionship, what gives life meaning. But they are also instruments, which create life displaced by immortality, a meaningless existence, the fate of the people in the trees.
Why does this novel resonate so powerfully? The sheer breadth of themes – each distinct and illustrated from diametric perspectives to compel analytical thought – is impressively complex. What’s perhaps more impressive is Yanagihara’s ability to intertwine the many themes, which are woven into the fabric of cultural relativism – the intersection of human nature and learned morality. Existence is contextual with everything in its place or removed from it. The influence of environment is demonstrated best in the physical deterioration of the dreamers, as well as the opa’ivu’eke, when they are shuttled to Perina’s laboratory in America for experimentation. The dreamers become overweight, physically unfit, and solely gain pleasure from food, which is also an allusion to American consumerism and obesity. Yanagihara places all of her themes on a balance, which pivots on its central axis of environment, and survival of the fittest, what survives and becomes the norm, is entirely dependent on the environment. Even an organism’s DNA is subject to modification by it’s physical and behavioral environment – a field of study called “epigenetics” – and resulting changes can be passed on to future generations.
As I sit here leafing through my copy of The People in the Trees, with its many sticky notes and dog-eared pages and underlined sentences and scribbles in the margins, I am gazing upon the empirical evidence of Yanagihara’s remarkable talent. I think of Eve and the dreamers, of the sloth and opa’ivu’eke, of the ties that bind and unravel. Most of all, I think of life and death, and whom I will pass this book onto.
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