Read an excerpt from The People in the Trees, the stunning debut novel from Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life
More about the book!
The People in the Trees is a powerful work of visionary literary fiction from Hanya Yanagihara, the bestselling author of the Man Booker Prize and National Book Award-nominated modern classic, A Little Life.
Originally published in 2013, The People in the Trees marks the debut of a remarkable new voice in American fiction.
This new edition will be out in September 2018 from Pan Macmillan!
About the book
It is 1950 when Norton Perina, a young doctor, embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumoured 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’s The People in the Trees marks the debut of a remarkable new voice in American fiction.
Read an excerpt from The People in the Trees
I was born in 1924 near Lindon, Indiana, the sort of small, unremarkable rural town that some twenty years before my birth had begun to duplicate itself, quietly but insistently, across the Midwest. By which I mean that the town, as I remember it, was exceptional only for its very lack of distinguishing details. There were silos, and red barns (most of the residents were farmers), and general stores, and churches, and ministers and doctors and teachers and men and women and children: an outline for an American society, but one with no flourishes, no decoration, no accessories. There were a few drunks, and a resident madman, and dogs and cats, and a county fair that was held in tandem with Locust, an incorporated town a few miles to the west that no longer exists. The townspeople–there were eighteen hundred of us–were born, and went to school, and did chores, and became farmers, and married Lindonites, and began families of their own. When you saw someone in the street, you’d nod to him or, if you were a man, pull down the brim of your hat a bit. The seasons changed, the tobacco and corn grew and were harvested. That was Lindon.
There were four of us in the family: my father, my mother, and Owen and me. (1) We lived on a hundred acres of land, in a sagging house whose only notable characteristic was a massive, once-grand central staircase that long before had been transformed by generations of termites into a lacy ruin.
About a mile behind the house ran a curvy creek, too small and slow and behaviorally inconsistent to warrant a proper name. Every March and April, after the winter thaw, it would surpass its limitations and become a proper river, swollen and aggressive with gallons of melted snow and spring rain. During those months, the creek’s very nature changed. It became merciless and purposeful, and seized from its outgrown banks tiny, starry bloodroot blossoms and wild thyme by their roots and whisked them downstream, where they were abandoned in the thicket of a dam someone unknown had built long ago. Minnows, the creek’s year-round inhabitants, fought upstream and drowned. For that one season, the creek had a voice: an outraged roar of rushing water, of power, and that narrow tributary, normally so placid and characterless, became during those months something frightening and unpredictable, and we were warned to keep away.
But in the heat of the summer months, the creek–which didn’t originate at our property but rather at the Muellers’, who lived about five miles to the east–dried once again to a meek trickle, timorously creeping its way past our farm. The air above it would be noisy with clouds of buzzing mosquitoes and dragonflies, and leeches would suck along its soft silty bottom. We used to go fishing there, and swimming, and afterward would climb back up the low hill to our house, scratching at the mosquito welts on our arms and legs until they became furry with old skin and new blood.
My father never ventured down to the creek, but my mother used to like to sit on the grass and watch the water lick over her ankles. When we were very young, we would call out to her–Look at us!–and she would lift her head dreamily and wave, though she was just as likely to wave at us as she was to wave at, say, a nearby oak sapling. (Our mother’s sight was fine, but she often behaved as a blind person would; she moved through the world as a sleepwalker.) By the time Owen and I were seven or eight or so (at any rate, too young to have become disenchanted with her), she had become an object of at first pity and, soon after, of fun. We’d wave at her, sitting on the bank, her arms crossed under her knees, and then, as she was waving back at us (with her whole arm rather than simply her hand, like a clump of seaweed listing underwater), we’d turn away, talk loudly to each other, pretend not to see her. Later, over dinner, when she’d ask what we’d done at the creek, we’d act astonished, perplexed. The creek? But we hadn’t been there! We were playing in the fields all day.
“But I saw you there,” she’d say.
No, we’d tell her in unison, shaking our heads. It must have been two other boys. Two other boys who looked just like us.
“But–” she’d begin, and her face would seize for a moment in confusion before clearing. “It must have been,” she’d say uncertainly, and look down at her plate.
This exchange occurred several times a month. It was a game for us, but an unsettling one. Was our mother playing along? But the look that crossed her face–of real worry, of fear that she was, as we said back then, not right, that she was unable to trust or believe her sight or memory–seemed too real, too spontaneous. We chose to believe that she was acting, for the alternative, that she was mad or, worse, genuinely moronic, was too frightening to contemplate seriously. Later, in our room, Owen and I would imitate her (“But–but–but–it was you!”) and laugh, but afterward, lying in our beds, silent, considering the game’s implications, we were troubled. We were young, but we both knew (from books, from our peers) what a mother was expected to do–to chastise, to teach, to instruct, to discipline if necessary–and furthermore, we both knew our mother was not fit for those tasks. What, we wondered, would we grow up to become under such a woman? Why was she so incapable? We treated her like most boys would treat small animals: kindly when we were feeling happy and generous, cruelly when we were not. It was intoxicating to know we had the power to make her shoulders relax, to make her lips part in an uncertain smile, and yet also to make her turn her face down, to make her rub her palm quickly against her leg, which she did when she was nervous or unhappy or confused. Despite our concerns, we never spoke of them aloud; the only discussions we had about her were tinged with derision or disgust. Worry pulled us closer to each other, made us ever bolder and more obnoxious. Surely, we thought, we would push her to a point where the real adult she’d kept cloaked so well would reveal itself. Like most children, we assumed all adults were naturally imbued with a sense of intimidation, of authority.