To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
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.