To Paradise

Hanya Yanagihara

To Paradise
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To Paradise

Hanya Yanagihara

In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him - and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.


These three sections are joined in an enthralling and ingenious symphony, as recurring notes and themes deepen and enrich one another: A townhouse in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village; illness, and treatments that come at a terrible cost; wealth and squalor; the weak and the strong; race; the definition of family, and of nationhood; the dangerous righteousness of the powerful, and of revolutionaries; the longing to find a place in an earthly paradise, and the gradual realization that it can’t exist. What unites not just the characters, but these Americas, are their reckonings with the qualities that make us human: Fear. Love. Shame. Need. Loneliness.

To Paradise is a fin-de-siecle novel of marvellous literary effect, but above all it is a work of emotional genius. The great power of this remarkable novel is driven by Yanagihara’s understanding of the aching desire to protect those we love - partners, lovers, children, friends, family and even our fellow citizens - and the pain that ensues when we cannot.

Review

This highly anticipated follow-up to 2015’s A Little Life is an epic tour de force. In fact, it’s impossible for me to praise To Paradise enough. Set in an alternative America, this is a novel of three parts, its narratives traversing a slew of human experience and emotion. Locational echoes and characters’ names recur from one story to the next, as if they are reincarnated or reimagined from the first to the last tale. Hanya Yanagihara’s employment of geographical and naming touchstones is clever; it forces the reader to reset and adopt a new mindset about these protagonists, while still anchoring them in the same space, albeit at different times.

The first story takes place in 1893. NYC is part of the ‘Free States’, a region that allows gay marriage, educational equality and religious freedom. A young man falls in love with a colleague of lower class, shunning a suitor chosen by his grandfather. Story two is set in 1993, where a young paralegal ensconced with an older man feels disconnected, as he’s racially and generationally different from those in his circle. He’s informed that his estranged father is dying. A sad figure from a once proud family, the father’s story encompasses colonialism, the annexation of Hawaii and the overthrowing of its monarchy. The last book takes a dystopian turn. NYC in 2093 has been separated into zones and is under totalitarian rule, isolating itself from the rest of the world as waves of pandemic sweeps through the city. A young woman has to make a difficult decision after a lifetime of having decisions made for her by her adoring grandfather.

To Paradise is unlike any novel I have read; dare I say it’s a masterpiece? This is a bravura feat of writing that evokes Henry James, Tony Kushner and George Orwell. It’s only February, but the impact of Yanagihara’s novel has me wondering if my reading year has already peaked.


Jason Austin is from Readings Carlton.

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