Book review: To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

to paradise hanya yanagiharaI loved A Little Life so I was looking forward to getting to grips with another big book by Hanya Yanagihara.

To Paradise tells three stories of a family, each a hundred years apart. It begins in 1893, in a subtly altered New York. A privileged but lonely young man, troubled by illness, is trying to choose between two potential suitors – one representing security and respectability, the other danger and passion.

In this version of history, New York is an independent state, and people are free to marry others of their own sex. The protagonist lives with his grandfather, cosseted but controlled, in a Washington Square mansion. His precarious condition might have been called hysteria, in a story often told about a woman at this period, so it’s an interesting twist to have it from a male perspective.

Although the man’s dilemma is a familiar one, it was nicely done and I enjoyed this part of To Paradise. The lives of the characters were vividly created (reading it reminded me a little of The Great Mistake which covers a similar period and themes). The world it portrays is at once recognisable and strange.

However, I lost my way in the second part, set in 1993. It begins with the story of a young gay man and his older partner, also living in Washington Square, confronting the AIDS crisis among their friends. The story is later taken up by the father of the New York protagonist in Hawai’i. He muses on their relationship, his own family history and its links to that of Hawai’i, and how his temperament and choices have influenced his son.

This story was less absorbing than the nineteenth century one. While the details about the political history of Hawai’i were interesting (and sent me to Wikipedia to learn what was real and what made up), the world of 1993 New York in To Paradise felt (overly) familiar. Surely if you change one thing, everything changes? The story of the father also repeats a lot of what we learn from the son.

In the final section, we get a glimpse of a future where a mysterious virus and fear of it are a constant background noise. In this world, shortages are common, hierarchy is enforced and sexuality is strictly policed. This future world felt like it needed to be more fully realised. It also had a complicated structure of chapters narrated by a protagonist in the ‘present’ of 2093, interspersed with letters from an (initially) unknown writer in an earlier period.

It’s a fine line between subtly highlighting thematic echoes across three centuries and bludgeoning your reader over the head with more of the same, and I’m not sure Yanagihara got it right here. All the stories feature illness and disease, the conflicting need for love and safety, the constraints of privilege, the demands and rewards of family and community. The names of the main characters are recycled through the three stories which adds to the samey feel. It’s also very wordy with some repetitive passages that could have been cut.

Each of the stories ends unresolved, with the characters moving towards an unknown future. The links between them aren’t tied up (though there are tantalising hints). Paradise, for character and reader alike, remains out of reach.

I received a copy of To Paradise from the publisher via Netgalley.
View To Paradise on Goodreads

Try instead: A novel I enjoyed which movingly evokes New York during the AIDS crisis is The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

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