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To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara review – is this the land of the free? | Fiction

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In the final section of Hanya Yanagihara’s tripartite novel, there is an episode that functions as a compressed emblem of the book’s intricately assembled themes and intensely anxious preoccupations. Having already been immersed in narratives set in the 19th and 20th centuries, the reader is now taken far into the 21st, an era in which pandemics sweep the globe in waves, each time altering the civic and political order. As a new virus threatens to take hold, a mother isolates her twin sons, survivors of an earlier sickness that has left them so immuno-compromised they can never again leave the house. After she herself succumbs, and they run out of food, they venture outside, and die.

The scientist who discovers their bodies wonders why they didn’t call for help, hypothesising that perhaps it was “because they wanted to see the world. I imagined them joining hands and walking out the door, down the steps, and into their backyard. There they’d stand, holding each other’s hands, smelling the air, and looking up at the treetops all around them, their mouths opening in wonder, their lives becoming glorious – for once – even as they ended.”

There are few surface resemblances between A Little Life, Yanagihara’s Booker-shortlisted second novel, and To Paradise, but in both she is deeply, compulsively interested in characters for whom the world seems unattainable, whose histories and temperaments coalesce to render them marginal, held back. Where A Little Life’s Jude St Francis was never able to find release from the relentless abuse he suffered as a child without attempting to wound and destroy himself, the characters in To Paradise are often afflicted by a diffidence more nebulous in origin, a hesitancy powered by an obscure sense of unbelonging or incapacity.

Those characters are various in their circumstances and behaviour, although Yanagihara’s device of using the same group of names in each of the three parts suggests a form of figurative, if not literal, reincarnation; as if the perseveration of psychological and emotional difficulty were, like a resurgent virus, resistant to attempts to subdue or eradicate it. But these personal stories are not simply studies in interiority; indeed, unlike the striking atemporality of A Little Life, each section conjures a vivid, often startlingly reconfigured America.

The opening section, Washington Square, immediately brings to mind the fictional world of Henry James and Edith Wharton, as well as more prosaically allowing Yanagihara to lay the ground for the fact that a single house will stand at the centre of the novel. Here we encounter David Bingham, the first born of a trio of siblings whose care, following their parents’ death, has fallen to their wealthy grandfather, Nathaniel. But amid the refinement and delicacy of the household – “even the sole had been steamed so expertly that you needed only to scoop it with the spoon held out for you, the bones yielding to the silver’s gentlest nudge” – there are darknesses and silence, not least concerning David’s “confinements”, peculiar periods of illness responsive only to retreat from the world.

Another pressing matter is David’s marriage, or lack of it; Nathaniel must ensure that his numerous properties and the family business will have a steward for the future. And here comes one of the earliest moments of wrongfooting; it is 1893, and in New York at the heart of the “Free States” of America, same-sex marriage is not merely legal, but commonplace. Suddenly, we are forced into an alternative history that imagines the past not as an earlier point on a progressive spectrum, but an era far more egalitarian and conducive to love, despite its class barriers and rigid etiquettes. That Yanagihara is set on disrupting our ideas of a journey towards enlightenment becomes clearer when the second section recreates Manhattan in the stigmatic age of Aids, here known only as “the disease”, and the third in a society where virulent illness has ushered in totalitarianism – which, as we might imagine, is thoroughly opposed to freedoms pertaining to love and sexuality.

In some ways, this is a work whose fascination with entropy – the breakdown of societies, of property, of the body – makes its job almost impossibly hard; we feel as though we are standing in the centre of ever-decreasing circles. The middle section, in which a group of wealthy, well-connected gay men are pictured in the midst of a lengthy party to take their leave of a friend, a man relieved to have “only” terminal cancer who is taking control of his death, shows us a community closing ranks. A shadow plot reveals the damage inflicted on a family via the American colonisation of Hawaii, and includes perhaps the book’s most deeply affecting section, a near-Nabokovian exploration of mental disintegration in the face of dispossession. Here, Yanagihara concentrates the themes of racial oppression and supremacy that are “the sin at America’s heart”.

And in the final section, the protagonist – the novel’s only significant female lead – is a young woman whose illness has robbed her of her capacity to feel and communicate emotions, to procreate, to conceive of herself as a person worthy of love. Aware of her predicament, she also lacks the tools and the ability to fully express it (here, one understands Yanagihara’s admiration of Kazuo Ishiguro, a specialist in exploring this kind of double bind). The possibilities in To Paradise always appear to be shrinking, reducing the chances of freedom and self-possession; the central characters, despite often having distinct material or intellectual potential, gradually come to realise the snares that surround them.

The novel’s title invokes a feeling of expectant adventuring, of happiness waiting somewhere; what, perhaps, nation-builders might feel just as strongly as individuals at the beginning of their lives. Where the suffering and hopelessness of A Little Life created an overwhelming experience that left readers divided around the issue of how much they could take, this is a far subtler delineation of those who feel hamstrung, beleaguered, inadequate to the task ahead. In many ways – not least the questions of political and social responsibility it poses, especially in the face of global catastrophe – it is a darker work, and yet a more fruitfully puzzling, multifaceted one. And behind this impressive, significant novel stands the question: what is a life, if it is not lived in freedom?

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara is published by Picador (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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