Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
We like to see history as going forward, progressing towards something better; it’s comforting to think that humankind is improving itself and societies grow fairer. It is what a book titled To Paradise might hint at. But Hanya Yanagihara’s third novel depicts in fact the reverse process and is occupied with the disintegration of minds, bodies, relationships and societies.
To Paradise is set in three parts, each of them an era in an alternative America. The first part is perhaps closest to paradise: in 1893, New York is part of the Free States where people may love whoever they wish and gay marriages are almost more commonplace than straight ones (although the world is no utopia: it’s a strictly white country where class barriers reign). Yet for David, the oldest of three siblings in a distinguished family, love is an elusive thing. Then he is struck by romantic interest on two fronts: he finds himself seeing a kind-hearted older man through a match-making process, as well as falling in love with a piano teacher who is as enigmatic as he is penniless. Slowly, his indecisiveness and self-doubt lead him onto a path marked equally by deception and fragility.
A hundred years later, Manhattan lives through an AIDS epidemic. There, another David lives with an older lover, on the same grand Washington Square as where the first David’s family home was. But history is more complex than the young professional that David wants to portray: once upon a time he was Hawaiian royalty, now in self-exposed exile from his estranged family. His story is intervowen with letters from his father who asks for forgiveness. In his letters, he revisits how he followed a revolutionary opposing the American colonialisation of Hawaii and eventually suffered complete mental and physical breakdown.
Fast forward another hundred years to 2093, and New York is plagued by epidemics and extreme weather. The state has turned totalitarian, and full-body cooling suits and decontamination chambers are the norm. Here, the story alternates between Charlie, who was struck by one of the epidemics as a child and is now living with the after-effects of the medication, and Charles, her grandfather, who in letters dated some decades earlier describes the decisions he has to make as a virologist, government advisor and father.
All these strands are tied together with a sense of literary, if not actual, reincarnation. The same names and places repeat throughout the sections, as do the traits of characters (I couldn’t help thinking of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas).
One such trait is extreme vulnerability; the self-doubting characters find themselves at the mercy of others, in desperation to please and to be loved, whether that comes in the form of romantic love, friendship or shared ideas. Another theme is the sense of not belonging. The first David is desperate to believe in the goodness of his lover despite evidence to the contrary because he has finally made a connection with someone; the second David’s father searches for true connection by abandoning his family and setting up camp — quite literally — with his revolutionary friend; and Charlie struggles to connect with anyone after the treatment that saved her life left her a shadow of her former self. Yanagihara masters this cyclical structure without becoming trite: each repeat of a theme feels fresh and reveals new aspects of how someone can be vulnerable, desperate or morally conflicted.
At 700 pages, I can’t do justice to the intricacies of the plots here, but the final section deserves a further note (I may be biased as I’m obsessed with dystopias…). In many ways it reads like the worst fears with the current pandemic: there are quarantine camps, protective gear as standard wear, never-ending vaccinations. Also the debates about state control and travel restrictions feel very much like today. Yet as Yanagihara writes in the foreword, she envisioned that section in 2017 and based it on interviews with experts in the field. Knowing that makes the dystopia and its links to today even more scary.
To anyone scared of the length of the novel: don’t be. Yanagihara’s writing flows through history, and it’s enthralling to descend down the steps that seem to lead further away from paradise.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise (Picador, 2022). 978-1529077476, 729pp., hardback.
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