The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Doubleday • $26.95 • ISBN 9780385536776
On sale August 13, 2013
Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees is one of our August issue's best debut novels of the year, perfect for fans of Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. Our reviewer was practically beside herself with praise, saying, "Novels like these are reminders not only of why we read, but also of just how vital and downright magical storytelling can be."
But if I'm totally honest, I picked this one up because I wanted to read about people eating magical turtles.
And there are definitely people eating turtles here, but fortunately for me, all the other stuff is true, too. Norton Perina, a scientist who has recently fallen from grace, recounts in these fictional memoirs an extraordinary journey into a remote Micronesian island where the meat of a turtle called the opa'ivu'eke may hold the key to eternal youth—but it comes with a terrible price.
The vivid and grotesque descriptions of setting, the engrossing science and the incredible imagination of this story are all enough to earn this book a spot among the best debuts of the year. What makes it one of the best books of the year, period, is its maturity in characterization. To take a man who has lost everything, who has been cast out from society and who may incite disgust in the reader, and allow him to represent himself in his own words defines Yanagihara as a uniquely talented storyteller. It takes compassion to be without judgment.
Check out our Q&A with Yanagihara and read her guest post about the true story behind her debut novel. Then enjoy this excerpt from The People in the Trees:
Looking back on it now, of course, I realize how extraordinary those first few days were, before I became immune to the awes of the jungle and even grew to despise them. One day—it must have been our third or fourth—I was trudging uphill as usual, looking around me, listening to the conversations of birds and animals and insects, feeling the floor beneath me gently buckling and heaving with unseen layers of worms and beetles as I placed my feet upon them; it could feel like treading on the wet innards of a large dozing beast. And then there was for a moment Uva at my side—he normally walked far ahead of me, in a pack with Fa'a and Tu, darting forward and back to assure Tallent that all was safe—holding his hand out before him, signaling me to stop. Then, quickly and gracefully, he sprang toward a nearby tree, indistinguishable from all others, thick and dark and branchless, and scrabbled up it quickly, turning his wide feet inward to cup its thorny bark. When he was about ten feet or so up, he looked down at me and held out his hand again, palm down—wait. I nodded. And then he continued to climb, vanishing into the canopy of the forest.
When he came down, he was slower, and clutching something in his hand. He leapt down the last five feet or so and came over to me, uncurling his fingers. In his palm was something trembling and silky and the bright, delicious pale gold of apples; in the gloom of the jungle it looked like light itself. Uva nudged the thing with a finger and it turned over, and I could see it was a monkey of some sort, though no monkey I had ever seen before; it was only a few inches larger than one of the mice I had once been tasked with killing, and its face was a wrinkled black heart, its features pinched together but its eyes large and as blankly blue as a blind kitten's. It had tiny, perfectly formed hands, one of which was gripping its tail, which it had wrapped around itself and which was flamboyantly furred, its hair hanging like a fringe.
"Vuaka," said Uva, pointing at the creature.
"Vuaka," I repeated, and reached out to touch it. Under its fur I could feel its heart beating, so fast it was almost a purr.
"Vuaka," said Uva again, and then made as if to eat it, solemnly patting his stomach.
The People in the Trees is one of my favorite debuts of the year, but First Fiction Month has highlighted plenty of other great debuts!
In his debut novel, Kevin Maher offers a story of challenges faced head-on with humor and the strength of family. The Fields depicts the struggles of 14-year-old Jim Finnegan as he navigates family, friends and girls while growing up in Dublin during the 1980s. Coming across situations he never imagined, Jim looks to his family for solutions as he faces the realities of becoming a man.
Dublin native Kevin Maher brings truth to his characters as Jim travels from Dublin to London in search of redemption. To learn more about Kevin Maher and his writing of The Fields, watch the book trailer below from Hachette Book Group and be sure to read our full review.
What do you think, readers? Will you be reading The Fields?
Today’s Debut of the Day pick is Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross, a psychologically acute tale that weaves together three different storylines together to chart the darkest depths of love and marriage. Though this isn't an easy read, it's a completely absorbing and rewarding one—if you enjoyed Gone Girl for its portrait of a twisted relationship, Mr. Peanut is for you.
To say this is a thematically rich book is hardly to do Mr. Peanut justice. For with every theme Ross presents—the Hitchcockian fallen hero, the classic “wrong man” trope, the Möbius strips and Escher imagery that emerge again and again, lest we forget the unending nature of marriage, love and murder—there is a way in which this too-clever-to-be-neat story resists such thematics, indeed calls into question the expectation/fulfillment nature of storytelling itself. And yet Ross cleaves closely to all the pleasures of the genre: mystery, suspense, romance, surprise. And in this sense, Mr. Peanut is highly unique—a disturbingly funny and remarkably poignant novel from one of the year’s most promising new voices.
Read the full review from our July 2010 issue here.
Every author finds their calling—and their material—differently. Sarah Bruni, whose first novel, The Night Gwen Stacy Died, was published just last month, shares her path to publication in a guest blog post. Perhaps it's not surprising that such a fresh and unusual story—which blends the Spider-Man mythology with the story of two unconventional loners—didn't present itself in a normal way!
I didn’t set out to write a novel at all. If I had I known from the start that’s what I was doing, I probably would have approached the task very differently. I began writing a collection of short stories set in Chicago in 2006. In one of them, a lonely young woman working in an Iowa gas station, eager for escape, allowed herself to be kidnapped by a gun-wielding taxi driver who called himself Peter Parker. Making a pact to rob her gas station and drive to Chicago in his stolen taxi, these two outcasts were my collection’s only characters who behaved so oddly: borrowing identities from comic books, acting out on the fringes of society. I didn’t know what to make of them; neither did my readers.
"Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience."
The thing that’s struck me most about the novelist’s task this first time through is the incredible sense of commitment that it requires to spend so much time in a single created world. Writing short fiction, I was always anxious to get into a new character’s headspace each time I finished a story. Working as a novelist taught me a particular kind of patience. It was sometimes a challenge to stay committed to these characters I had first encountered nearly seven years ago, to continue to find new ways to move with them through their experiences. But being a long and imperfect form, a novel allows opportunities for digression and experimentation that are different from those available in shorter fiction. I was surprised by how much my characters were able to change and develop with me as a writer, how their behaviors shifted along with my interests—that’s in some way what made me stick with them for so long.