Is empathy a good thing? Is it useful? Is everyone worthy of empathy, or only certain people? Does empathy even have a “target,” or is the empathetic person just empathizing with everyone, all the time? Even with people engaged in taboo behaviour? Even with people who use a position of power to prey on the weak? What are the limits of empathy?
If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop here, but tell me if you’ve ever empathized with an evil fictional character. Also, go read Naomi’s spoiler-free review at Consumed by Ink. We read this book together and exchanged many emails as we tried to make sense of it. We both recommend it highly.
The People in the Trees is about pedophilia, from the perspective of a closed-off society in which it is a cultural practice, and from the perspective of an American serial rapist. It’s about much more than that, but this is the big spoiler, the thing people generally don’t mention in their reviews.
I read many reviews that talked about moral ambiguity and sensitive subjects, but no one named the thing. It’s not that it’s a huge plot twist. It’s hinted at and foreshadowed pretty thoroughly. It’s a spoiler because the reading experience would be different, knowing for sure that the Norton did it. My reading experience was one of knowing but not, and by turns wishing he would be caught and punished, and wishing that it would somehow, impossibly, turn out to be a mistake.
When we finally find out that it is true, and that Norton gets away with it, the reader is confronted with a problem: what to do with the empathy that’s built up over hundreds of pages, now that you know that Norton isn’t just a misunderstood genius, or jut the person responsible for the biggest scientific breakthrough in his lifetime, or just a busy and devoted parent; that he is all those things and he is also a most vile and predatory child rapist, who abuses his own adopted children? How does the reader reconcile the (relatively) normal scenes of domestic chaos with the fact that is was all, all along, an elaborate and audacious front? An actual house of horrors?
Yanagihara throws another wrench into this disturbing machinery: how does that fact that these children would likely have been abused a home if Norton hadn’t adopted them factor in? Is culturally sanctioned abuse “better” than Norton’s version? It’s an impossible question.
I haven’t even touched the questions raised about immortality, medical ethics, colonialism, and environmentalism. They’re all impossible questions.
Yanagihara’s power and confidence allow her to get away with a story this controversial, without ever feeling lurid or exploitative. I didn’t understand all of her choices – of perspective, of pace, of what was revealed and what (maddeningly!) was not. But I trusted her completely.
If you read the book, what did you think about Norton? Did you empathize with him? Did learning the truth make you feel complicit?