Source: Review copy
Publication: 11 January 2022 from Picador
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.
I read To Paradise between Christmas and New Year as more Covid restrictions were kicking in and many of the themes in this book were resonating and rattling round as questions in my head.
To Paradise is an epic work. In three sections, Yanagihara tackles some immense topics which ultimately lead you to question notions of freedom and freedom of choice and what we as society do to each other in that name. Though this book is about love, family, protection and choices, it is also – especially in the third section – a pandemic novel, so be warned.
To Paradise spans three centuries and centres around one house in Washington Square. In an opening reminiscent of Henry James’ The Ambassadors and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, this mannered society is one in which arranged marriages are the norm, though there’s a moment when you realise that this society is one in which gay arranged marriages are completely accepted, and that makes you blink.
David Bingham lives with his wealthy grandfather, Nathaniel. A sickly child, his illnesses are not spoken of and must be concealed from potential suitors. Gay marriage may be welcomed in this 1893, but class and wealth play just as strong a role as ever they did and the suitability of eligible partners is still paramount. This part of free America is racist though; it does not non-Europeans as citizens except and former black slaves from the South are encouraged to move on to the North or the West. And so we follow David, torn between pleasing his grandfather by contracting to marry Charles and inheriting all that he holds dear and holding out for the most unsuitable of matches which everyone but David can see will end in tears.
The second section, set in 1990’s New York is poignant and takes us to a group of affluent men gathering to say goodbye to a dear friend, now dying of terminal cancer but who is mightily relieved not to be dying of a disease which is rife amongst their friends. This disease, characterised by skin lesions, often burned off in an attempt to avoid the stigma, is all too clearly Aids. David Bingham a paralegal, (not the same one, names are repeated in this triptych) is having an affair with his firm’s senior partner Charles. David is a young Hawaiian man whose father, descended from royal blood, is dying in an institution on the island and this is his story, sometimes told by him and at others it is his father’s monologue which drives the narrative. Yanagihara shows us an uncompromising America colonising Hawaii, oppressing its peoples and stealing the land and customs. In doing so it has created a society in which the people are conflicted, angry and suffer greatly from no longer knowing or understanding their rich heritage. The darkness suffered by the Hawaiians is suffused through their mental health and disintegration of collective memory.
Cue then, the third section of this triptych, taking place in2094 with flashbacks, in an America which is scarily recognisable. This is the pandemic section and strikes a chord with all of us who have lived through three lockdowns so far. Here is a society which has been crushed by a series of viruses and whose efforts are now entirely directed at predicting and curing the next wave.
Everything is directed in pursuit of these aims and in the process Yanagihara portrays a totalitarian regime in which any joy has been removed and freedom no longer exists. Charlie lives in New York with her remote husband. Partners each have a free evening and Charlie is curious about where her husband spends his. As she tells her story, we learn about her background and through her grandfather Charles’ letters to Peter, a member of the UK Government. A promising scientist he allows the virus to corrupt his ideals from mass protection of the public to the creation of internment camps for the sick and their families. Soon it is only the well-connected in Government and the wealthy that are likely to survive. And so procreation becomes important as the population diminishes, leading to an eradication of every freedom that Americans have enjoyed. His son, though, cannot ignore his stirrings of discontent and becomes a vocal dissenter.
This America is one in which a combination of lack of freedoms because of inequality, climate change and pandemics has produced a society in which life holds little joy or freedom and life is brutal because of the ‘national emergency’. It is not at all difficult to extrapolate today’s world from the futuristic warnings in To Paradise, and though I cannot go along the logical trajectory that Yanagihara lays out, the warnings are clear
What the reader is left with is that thought about possibilities. What are the choices we make along every road? How could one small decision change the course of society and the worlds we live in? Because she has used the same names, the possibilities are counterpointed and each of these Davids and Charlies have cause to question what could have been different. What has been sacrificed in the cause of so called safety and what freedoms are they prepared to give up – and why?
Verdict: I said at the start of this review that this book had echoes of James and Wharton. By the end though, it felt a bit more like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Looking backwards to examine choices made and forwards to see the consequences of those choices. To Paradise is a massive, dizzying work on a huge scale that asks some very big questions pertinent to the choices we make for the future. It’s immersive, complex, finely layered, sometimes repellent and utterly absorbing. It’s rather beautifully and compellingly expressed and is one you’ll be thinking about for years to come.
Hanya Yanagihara won the Kirkus Prize for her second novel, 2015’s A Little Life, a sweeping tale of male bonding and childhood trauma. A 1995 graduate of Smith College, Yanagihara settled in Manhattan and worked as a publicist and then a travel writer. Still an editor with T: The New York Times Style Magazine, she published her first novel in 2013. Although it didn’t sell all that well, The People in the Trees earned critical praise for its audacity and depth of emotion. Yanagihara has said it took 18 years to write her first novel, and 18 months to write her second. A Little Life became a late summer hit in 2015, and was named as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award.
Photo: c. James Watkins/WENN.com