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To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara – a masterpiece for our times | Hanya Yanagihara

To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s huge, advanced follow-up to her Booker-shortlisted A Little Life, is a novel of many faces. I might inform you, for occasion, that it’s about colonialism and racism in America right this moment; or that it’s a queer counterfactual historical past (and future) that asks what would occur if sexuality had been destigmatised (after which restigmatised); or an elegy for the misplaced kingdom of Hawaii. Most readers, I believe, will focus on the e-book’s longest part, the third, during which Yanagihara writes of a collection of pandemics and the way in which they reshape society within the a long time forward.

To Paradise is organized in three discrete however interrelated components. The primary, Washington Sq., is ready within the Eighteen Nineties in a fictional New York. Historical past has gone by way of a scrumptious skew, in order that the north-eastern states have seceded from the remainder of the US, a part of a extra basic post-civil conflict rearrangement. Our hero for this part is David Bingham, the dreamy and foppish scion of a banking empire. He lives along with his grandfather, Nathaniel, in a lovely home in Washington Sq.. The “Free States” based mostly their independence on the query of homosexual marriage – evidently, with all stigma stripped away from homosexuality, round half of the residents select same-sex relationships.

This part is in essence a love story, as David, “nonetheless almost-young”, falls for the 23-year-old Edward, a music trainer. There’s one other potential suitor for David: the bluff, genial Charles Griffiths, a New Englander. As David makes an attempt to decide on between the 2 males, Nathaniel Bingham appears into Edward’s previous and finds that each one is probably not because it appears. David is confronted with a selection: the understanding of life within the Free States or a journey westwards, to California, to paradise.

The second a part of the e-book, Lipo-Wao-Nahele is itself divided in two sections. The primary is about one other David Bingham, this one a junior paralegal finishing up a semi-illicit affair along with his boss, the rich Charles Griffiths. It’s the Nineteen Eighties, deep within the coronary heart of a pandemic (which we presume is Aids – it’s by no means named). Even from Griffiths’s opulent Washington Sq. house (the home is likely one of the constants within the novel), there’s the sense of a metropolis beneath siege. Yanagihara has all the time been good on the trimmings of the great life, however right here there’s an virtually fetishistic caressing of fabric items, a celebration of luxurious as necessity at a time of disaster.

‘An almost fetishistic caressing of material goods’: Hanya Yanagihara.
‘An virtually fetishistic caressing of fabric items’: Hanya Yanagihara. {Photograph}: Sian Davey/The Observer

We uncover on this second part that David Bingham is “from one of many oldest households in Hawai’i… If issues had gone otherwise, I might have been king.” David is Kawika, inheritor to a throne that not exists. The darkish historical past of the US annexation of Hawaii is simply too advanced to unpack right here, nevertheless it is likely one of the key themes working by way of the novel; how American capitalism warped and curdled Hawaii’s sense of itself. The drifting, light David/Kawika, and the narrator of the second half of this part, Wika, David’s broken and dying father, are collateral injury on this half-forgotten act of colonialism.

The ultimate a part of the novel is Zone Eight. Once more, the part is break up in two, though these two components interweave and replicate upon one another. One thread is ready within the 2090s, two centuries after the novel opens, and is narrated by Charlie, who we be taught is a survivor of one of many horrible zoonotic pandemics that swept the globe in the middle of the twenty first century. She is a unusually clean, affectless character: she fell sick as a youngster within the pandemic of 2070 and the experimental drug that was used to treatment her has half-destroyed her thoughts. Charlie lives, once more, on Washington Sq., though the home has been divided into residences. The world is dominated from Beijing and all of the marks of basic dystopia are there: the web has been shut down, the press is state-controlled, books are banned, the key police spy on folks utilizing insect drones.

This narrative is intercut with letters from one other Charles Griffiths, Charlie’s father, who’s writing to Peter, a fellow scientist in “New Britain”. His letters start in 2043 and take us by way of the darkish years of the second half of the twenty first century, the place every new wave of illness turns into an excuse for more and more totalitarian modes of management. It’s good and horrifying in equal measure, significantly if, like me, you’re temperamentally disinclined to fret an excessive amount of in regards to the lack of freedoms within the face of a pandemic. I’m not about to burn masks in Parliament Sq., however that is a novel that actually forces you to look at your woolly liberal assumptions in regards to the motives behind lockdowns.

Put collectively, the three sections of the novel mix to ship a collection of highly effective statements about progress and utopia, about those that are excluded from our visions of a higher world. Yanagihara asks us particularly to maneuver past binary configurations of sexuality, race and well being, to problem any political motion that seeks to privilege one group or one other based mostly on slender definitions of id. We’re all a number of selves on the earth of To Paradise.

Nabokov stated that names carry “colored shadows” in a novel and the repetition of names throughout the three sections is on one stage fairly easy: that is a multigenerational household saga, exhibiting how fortunes rise and fall over centuries, questioning the thought of inheritance and inspecting concepts of household that reach past blood ties. There’s one thing greater than this, although, one thing that chips away on the verisimilitude of the novel, that asks us to have interaction in a difficult method with the very concept of characters in a e-book: these are figures going through comparable challenges in numerous times, however the factors of correspondence reveal important truths about what it means to be human at a time of disaster.

Generally literature takes time to digest momentous occasions: the nice novels of the Napoleonic wars, of the Holocaust, of the plague, weren’t printed till a long time after the episodes they describe. Sometimes, although, a masterpiece emerges from the white warmth of the second: The Nice Gatsby, The Decameron, The Waste Land. There’s one thing miraculous about studying To Paradise whereas the coronavirus disaster remains to be taking part in out round us, the dizzying sense that you just’re immersed in a novel that may come to symbolize the age, its obsessions and anxieties. It’s uncommon that you just get the chance to evaluate a masterpiece, however To Paradise, definitively, is one.

  • To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara is printed by Pan Macmillan (£20, AU$32.99). To help the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Supply prices could apply

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