In To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara boldly reimagines a tiny, yet significant slice of America across two hundred years. Though epic in scope, her voice is innately tuned to the intimate.
As you get further and further into the reading of a great novel, the outside world, little by little, begins to fade. Eventually, you can’t see the world beyond the characters that have been created on the page. Hanya Yanagihara specialises in creating such universes — and in the case of To Paradise (Pan Macmillan), a parallel existence fits within its paperback covers.
To Paradise is a trilogy that spans the centuries, experimenting with recurring, yet evolved and sometimes distorted mirror images that appear in geographical forms, identities, and relationships (even scraps of dialogue eerily echo through the epochs). The narratives are fuelled by strikingly different devices — the omniscient eye of the third person, more intimate first-person retellings, as well as epistolatory sections.
For all its ambition and mastery of technique, however, Yanagihara’s sense of intimacy, empathy, and what motivates people comes to the fore, ultimately imbuing To Paradise with its passion and life.
With A Little Life, her second novel, Hanya Yanagihara placed herself at the centre of the literary world’s attention. It’s a story that draws you in obsessively — and while it plays with temporality, the story is a monolith, with its protagonist, Jude, taking centre stage.
To Paradise is a marked divergence from this form. Split into three fin-de-siècle stories, this sprawling seven-hundred-page volume takes readers first to 1893, then 1993, and finally, 2093. Geographically, the main connection is a townhouse in Washington Square — in the heart of downtown New York (though Hawai‘i is explored thoroughly in book two, Lipo-Wao-Nahele).
Curiously, familiar names bubble to the surface, with the characters that bear them sharing similar traits in one way or another. David, for example, is the delicate heir to a family fortune in book one, Washington Square, is a name shared by a father and son in Lipo-Wao-Nahele, and the troubled son of a scientist in the final book, Zone Eight. Similarly, you’ll encounter Charles (and Charlie), Edward, Nathaniel, Aubrey, Peter, and others, in different guises across the trilogy.
This is what lends To Paradise some of its ghostly and affecting emotional triggers: the past is never quite in the past. Another is its trajectory of devolution: the New York of 1893 is presented as a paragon of tolerance (in love, at least), though beset with aggressors that lie beyond the frontier of ‘The Free States’. 1993 has a more funereal atmosphere, as New York’s gay community attempts to rebuild amid the ashes of the AIDS epidemic.
In 2093, after a series of plagues, America finds itself in the grip of a totalitarian regime. This book, Zone Eight, is twice as long as the other two and here, Yanagihara renders her most worryingly detailed picture. We find a young and ostensibly fragile wife and her husband, living under the pressure of constant surveillance, their advancement in life halted by virtue of their connections to enemies of the state. Zone Eight alternates between the ‘present’ of 2093 and letters from a powerful government scientist to his distant confidant — illuminating the readers as to how 2093’s state of affairs came to be with prescient and devastating logic.
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It’s a testament to Yanagihara’s narrative control that things don’t become convoluted. This is partly due to the manner in which she has deployed perspective. In Washington Square, she opts for the third person, employing a stylised voice that’s appropriate for the period. But for much of the three books, first-person intimacy is favoured: as David (Wika) Bingham addresses his son, David (Kawika) Bingham in Lipo-Wao-Nahele, for example, you feel all the pain, pathos, and love that can only be expressed in personal communication. Similarly, when Charles (the scientist in Zone Eight) writes to Peter, you can’t help but connect with his regret, fear, and steadfastness in the midst of a world gone mad.
It’s through these epic dispatches that a subset of themes including race, class, colonialism, and the way they regenerate over time, are explored with depth and realism. They mingle with the overarching questions about love and fear and loneliness organically, reminding you that people are nothing if not the stories they tell each other. That substance — that essence of human connection — is rich in this masterful piece of fiction.
To Paradise is out now via Pan Macmillan.