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The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara, Atlantic Books, RRP£12.99, 384 pages

In 1996, the Nobel Prize-winning virologist Dr D Carleton Gajdusek was charged in the US with child sex abuse and later served a year in prison. His victim was one of more than 50 children he had “adopted” during research trips to Papua New Guinea and Micronesia. It is on his true story that Hanya Yanagihara bases her disturbing debut novel.

The People in the Trees is written as a memoir of renowned biologist Norton Perina, edited, with long, sycophantic footnotes, by a longtime colleague. The account spans early childhood to his incarceration but the event that shapes his life comes in his twenties, when he joins an expedition to Ivu’ivu, a Micronesian island, in search of a lost tribe.

Yanagihara, who is editor-at-large for Condé Nast Traveler, saves her best prose for the stunning yet suffocating fertility of the jungle, which Perina compares to “an overdressed woman parading her entire cache of sparkly jewels before me”.

The visitors’ quest to understand and dissect this habitat, and the fascinating yet brutal culture of its people, is infectious. The stakes are raised when they find a group of impossibly aged wanderers, named “the dreamers” for their dulled mental faculties, who owe their longevity to a sacred turtle. Determined to discover the secret to eternal life, Perina kills one of the turtles and takes it, along with several dreamers, back to the US for experimentation. His findings have disastrous consequences for Ivu’ivu. Pharmaceutical companies move in, stripping the tiny island of its flora and fauna, and displacing a now alcohol-addicted population.

Though Perina laments, “The island had gone from being an Eden to becoming what it was, and is: just another Micronesian ruin,” he shows no remorse for his own role, remaining instead creepily convinced of his moral rectitude in all matters, professional and personal. A catalogue of ecological and cultural devastation culminates with his most self-destructive habit: on visits to the islands, he finds himself unable to stop taking children home, and builds an “extravagant collection” of “adopted” sons and daughters.

This is not a simple rise-and-fall story. As a man, Perina is never lifted from the traits he shows as a child: emotionally stunted, misogynist, even borderline sociopathic. As a scientist, he is rarely elevated above a state of paranoid insecurity. His egotism at least provides welcome funny moments: at the peak of his career, his favourite biography is the one that portrays him as “something close to godlike”. His view of children and sexuality tests the limits of cultural relativism but Yanagihara shows skill in suspending any absolute judgments of guilt or innocence.

Unfortunately, all this carefully wrought subtlety falls asunder in a final, grim appendix. It is a scene that, if encountered earlier, might prompt many readers to close the book and read no further. And to do so would be to miss out on Yanagihara’s greatest achievement: her painfully believable depiction of one of literature’s least likeable protagonists.

Last year the novelist told Publishers Weekly that, on completion of the book, she was sad to leave Perina behind; as a reader, I am relieved that I will never have to meet him again.

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