To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Hawaiian- American writer, Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s third novel To Paradise (2022) is in three parts:

Book 1 is set in New York, in 1893

Book 2 is set in the Hawaiian Islands in 1993

Book 3 is set in Lower Manhattan in 2093

There are many things Jamesian about Book 1, and not just the style and lexicon. The Bingham family lives on Washington Square, New York; and like Henry James’s novella, Washington Square (1880), it is about a rich but ageing heir, a tenacious lover who may or may not be a fortune-hunter, and an intractable and controlling guardian who opposes the match. This may not be so remarkable if it wasn’t for two other potent features. Firstly, the America of Yanagihara’s imagination is very different. What we know as the United States of America is unrecognisable in that it is divided into five separate zones of nations : The American Union (the central north), The Western Union (comprising the nations of Washington, Oregon, and California), The Kingdom of Hawaii, The United Colonies (the south east), The Free States (the north east including New York), and The Republic Of Maine (the far-north east). The south west is still uncharted territories. Secondly, the lovers in James’s story are Catherine Sloper and Morris Townsend; those in Yanagihara’s are David Bingham and Edward Bishop. Same-sex relationships are legal and tolerated in The Free States but are quite the opposite in other parts of the continent. Fundamentally and curiously, the love stories, written by James and Yanagihara, are the same.

Book 2 is set in Manhattan and on The Islands – The Kingdom – of Hawaii and concerns members of the royal family who live under greatly reduced circumstances. The main characters share the names of the main characters in Book 1 – as well as in Book 3: David, Edward, and Charles. This technique acts as a linking device throughout the novel linking the three parts but in names only. Yanagihara’s concern here seems to be an acknowledgement of Hawaiian disenfranchisement; with a post-colonial literary edge, giving the displaced and sidelined locals a voice. Young and insecure David works as a para-legal in a law firm in Manhattan where his immediate boss, and lover, is the much older Charles. David is of mixed Hawaiian and American descent. This relationship is told in the third person but from David’s point of view. His lack of confidence, his heritage, and past all conspire to work against him. The second half of Book 2 is a long first-person narrative written to David by his father, medically and emotionally tied to his bed. It contains a yearning tone for the glories of the Hawaii of the past, pre-invasion, although there have been uprisings and counter-revolutions. It’s not clear in this section where the story is going and it is the weakest part of the whole book. However, all is forgiven once you get to Book 3.

This is set in 2093 and divided into 10 parts, opening in 2093 but incorporating the back story from fifty years earlier and following each decade until the threatening and page-turning climax in the last days of the century. It’s impossible to outline the plot here because it’s not only convoluted but I would need to create too many spoilers to do it justice. However, I will simply say it involves the story of Charlie, a pandemic survivor and therefore a greatly changed human being, and her relationship with her grandfather, David. The grandfather-grandchild relationship is an important theme of this book and is explored in many ways.

What is remarkable is that what lies at the core of the novel, and the three books it contains, are deeply personal narratives about love, loss, and empowerment even though the book’s political and social universe that house these individual stories is so totally different to our own; dystopian certainly. Yanagihara has not only imaginatively created an alternative American continent, only keeping to its geographical shape, but also has generated its own inevitable and deeply disheartening future.

This is scary.

It’s scary because given the recent three years of the history of the USA – the one we know: the threat of climate change, the global alteration to our lives due to a pandemic – with the threat of more to come, and the beginnings of the corrosion of American democracy and way of life makes Yanagihara’s novel dangerously prophetic. But all of this information the reader gleans from the asides, dialogue, and explanations of the central very personal narratives.

In Yanagihara’s 2093 pandemics are commonplace. Climate change has happened: cooling suits have been invented and are being improved to allow people to go outside; falling ill puts the individual and their families into permanent isolation (containment centres); building crematoriums is a growth industry. Good nourishment is scarce, food and water are rationed via coupons or can be won through lotteries, tea is powdered, honey is artificial, and all fruit growing on trees is owned by the state. Marriage is mandated since most of the victims of pandemics have been children and those who survive, like Charlie, are sterile. The birthrate has plummeted.

It takes a special kind of cruelty to make a baby now, knowing that the world it’ll inhabit and inherit will be dirty and diseased and unjust and difficult.

All urban areas are surveyed by drones called Flies. It is therefore unwise to show distress, anger, or alarm and if noticed the offenders are plucked from the street by troopers in passing vans. Lives are strictly controlled. Tuscany is no longer inhabitable. Bowing has become the universal form of greeting; touching is therefore avoided.

The people who worked for the State and the people who didn’t were united in their desire to never encounter each other.

Hania Yanagihara started writing this book in 2017 and when the pandemic was raging outside her window the latest pandemic in her invented world was about to override the previous one. She talks about this serendipitous aspect of her book in the video below.

Although there are some flaws, this is a truely remarkable work of creative writing. A must read. I just hope its story stays in the world of her and our imaginations.

Here is a very candid and fascinating interview with Yanagihara primarily about the writing of this novel.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

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