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7th March 2022

A little review of a large book: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Does Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise live up to the success of her much loved previous novel A Little Life?
A little review of a large book: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara
Photo: Aileen Loftus @ The Mancunion

To Paradise is the third and most recent book by the author of the much loved A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. It has already been labelled a ‘masterpiece’ by The Observer.

To Paradise, like Yanagihara’s Booker-shortlisted second novel, is a massive tome, and picking it up for the first time can feel a little daunting. However, it’s fast paced and immensely gripping, and I found myself hooked from around the second page. It is wonderfully immersive, with the rare quality of allowing you to forget you’re reading at all. 

It is a tripartite novel, following three distinct time periods, each with its own set of characters. The first section is set in New York in 1893. Except New York is not quite as we recognise it. In an alternative imagination of history, New York is in the ‘Free States’ of America, which have seceded from the rest of the US. In the Free States same-sex marriage is legal and commonplace, despite it sharing class boundaries and various rules and etiquettes with real 19th century New York. 

We follow David Bingham, who was born into a wealthy elite family, and lives with his grandfather, Nathaniel, in a grand house in Washington Square. It is in part a love story, as David chooses between an arranged marriage with the wealthy Charles Griffiths, and the musical and romantic Edward, who David loves, but who could be too good to be true. History has been rewritten, and Yanagihara has tackled class divide, true love, arranged marriages, inherited wealth and family legacy, yet you are only a third of the way through the novel. 

The second section is itself divided into two parts. The first is about another David Bingham, this one a junior paralegal secretly dating his boss, the wealthy Charles Griffiths. We then follow David through his childhood in Hawaii with his father and grandmother. This section moves slower, and is sad and mournful, in part because in New York Charles’ friends are slowly dying from a disease that remains unnamed, but parallels AIDS. It is only in this section that the 700 page novel lost its firm grip on me slightly.

The third section is a different style again, set in the future, but flicking between around 2050 and 2090. The earlier period is depicted in emails or letters from New York to England from yet another Charles, which begin in 2043 and describe the disease-ridden years of the 20th century, where each new wave of illness becomes an excuse for increasingly totalitarian methods of control by the state. The later period follows Charles’ granddaughter, Charlie, though it takes a while for this connection to be apparent. Charlie is a survivor of the 2070 pandemic, and the drugs used to save her life have left her less able to understand social cues and to read emotions.

The novel is complex; vast in scope and themes, covering 200 years, and with a large cast of characters with repeated names. Houses and inheritance are continually weaved through, as is class, Hawaiian politics, love and arranged marriages, and, of course, disease. 

Reading about a pandemic-ridden state, with rules, lockdowns, and isolations is a clear reminder of Covid-19, making it difficult to read at times. Yanagihara creates a vision of the future that isn’t appealing, but remains scarily realistic.

There are a lot of repeated names, which is both confusing and intriguing, as you link who is or could be connected to who, and how many generations apart they must be. Rather than related, characters seem to be reincarnated in each generation, as are grandfather-grandchild relationships. It questions ideas of family and friendship, and how wealth is or isn’t passed on. The repeated names are briefly alluded to when Charlie meets another David and remarks ‘My father was called David’. He only replies ‘it’s a common name’, leaving the repetitions to possibly remain coincidences. Except later we find out that David isn’t who he said he was, and so the name is not a coincidence at all. 

Each time I finished a section I was sad to be leaving those characters behind, but then quickly became hooked on the next section. I decided the most recently read section was my favourite, every time. It feels like a book that would take a lifetime to unpack fully, one that would benefit from reading again, and then again after that.

The novel as a whole perhaps felt too disjointed, at times I felt like I had read three separate novels. This is perhaps in part due to its immense length – To Paradise is also the length of three separate novels stuck together. Yet without being one long work, you wouldn’t be faced with the overwhelming sense of history repeating itself.

Despite the enormity of To Paradise, it’s in its precise details and sumptuous descriptions that Yanagihara’s work is most wonderful: the mundanity of Charlie’s everyday life, the details of Edward’s tiny room and scratchy blanket and David’s tortured thoughts at Charles’ dinner parties are elements that have stuck with me the most.

The ending is left for the reader to decide if there is hope or not. I’m ever the optimist so I imagined it to be positive, otherwise Yanagihara’s imagined future is too bleak and hard to swallow. Whether you see hope in the novel or not, To Paradise is both a must-read and a perfect read if you happen to have some time isolating on your hands – because it certainly isn’t a quick read.

Aileen Loftus

Aileen Loftus

Books Editor

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