Web_Banner_BridgeALICO (1).png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Art and Culture

Likely Stories: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara


Wondrous prose of an M.D. studying a newly discovered South Pacific tribe.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015.  The beautiful prose stunned me, while I was aghast at the horrors a character experienced.  My mind spun and spun at the incongruity, and I found it necessary to read more of her work.  So, I turned to her first and only other novel, The People in the Trees.  The novel received widespread praise and was named one of the best books of 2013.

Hanya was born in Los Angeles to a Hawaiian father and a Korean mother.  Due to her father’s occupation, she lived in several locations, including New York, Baltimore, California, and Texas.  People in the Trees is based on a true story of an anthropologist who studied a remote tribe in Borneo.

A. Norton Perina was a mediocre medical student who faced graduation with almost no opportunities to further his medical education.  One of his professors connected him to a renowned anthropologist, Paul Tallent, who believed he could locate an unknown tribe on a South Pacific Island.  He wanted to bring Norton along so he could assess the medical condition of the tribe.  He discovered a rather inexplicable paradox among the tribe members on one of the three islands which made up the tiny archipelago – the people appeared to be in their early 60s, yet evidence dictated some of the islanders were more than 200 years of age.  Norton becomes obsessed with finding the cause of their longevity. 

A colleague, Ronald Kubodera, urges Norton to set down the facts of his life in a memoir, and he agrees on the condition Kubodera will edit the manuscript.  On his first of many trips to Ivu’ivu, Norton describes the island.  Hanya writes, “As we made the half-hour ride toward town, I learned of all the things U’iva did not have.  There were no roads, for one – trails, yes, with patches of grass and struggling flowers tamped down by horses hooves – nor was there a hotel, or university, or grocery store, or hospital.  There were, dismayingly, churches, quite a few of them, their white wooden spires the only thing taller than the palm, which cast stripes of black shadow against the dirt but offered no comfort from the sun, which washed the sky a hard glaring white.  I asked Tallent – who was managing to look graceful on his small horse – if there were many horses on the island but it was his [research assistant] who answered, telling me that although a hundred or so had made their way to U’ivu in the early 1800s, most of them had died in a terrible tsunami that had destroyed the northern half of the island in 1873.  The rest returned home soon after, and U’ivu was once again left to the U’ivuans, the way it had been for the thousands of years prior to the missionaries’ arrival” (100-101).

Hanya Yanagihara has created an imaginative world in The People in the Trees, while providing a prelude to the problem of evil found in A Little Life.  This absorbing, provocative story examines the devastation wreaked upon cultures by misguided outsiders  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!