To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

To Paradise is an epic novel that explores ideas of health and illness, race, nationhood, and family across three different times and many different characters. Starting in an alternative universe version of America in 1983, the first section explores the structures that exist in the Free States, a part of America that seems to have more liberal views and allows same-sex marriage, but that doesn’t stop a wealthy young man from having to fight for who he wants to marry. The next section moves to 1993, in which a Hawaiian man hides the troubles of his upbringing from his lover against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. And then the third section takes us to 2093 and a world full of pandemics, in which a scientist’s granddaughter tries to understand where her husband is disappearing to in a strictly controlled world.

A lot of people (myself included) will be anticipating this after A Little Life, and To Paradise is very different in some ways, but also similar in others, particularly in some of Yanagihara’s themes and locations and the general ambiguity and complexity around some of the moral issues. The book is in three distinct sections, and I like the fact that these are separate, making it clear where you’re at and also making them resonate with each other but not completely link. The third section is a lot longer than the other two (it takes up half of the book) and probably the one that stood out most to me when reading, combining the narratives of a woman and her grandfather, with the latter told entirely in one-way letters.

The first section has a distinct vibe, a kind of high society romance and love across class barriers, but it raises a lot of issues and questions around power, class, and race, and the failings of a seemingly utopian place that is still prejudiced, racist, and rigidly structured. Stepping back from the immediate narrative to notice this makes it richer, and I enjoyed the hints of hindsight in the narrative voice combined with the somewhat ambiguous ending (which is teased about in the third part). I wasn’t really sure what to make of this section whilst reading, and I think it benefits from considering as part of the whole book and in relation to the other sections.

The second section is quite different again, split into two parts exploring a Hawaiian man’s life in New York City with his older lover, as he hides his complicated past and watches people get ill and die, and then his father’s story, looking at identity and the colonisation of Hawaii through the eyes of a man with a mysterious illness. The first part was more of a snapshot, feeling quite brief, but the second part brings a rich narrative whilst also eventually unfolding the childhood of the protagonist from the first part.

As I already mentioned, the third section stood out most to me, almost immediately drawing me into the story of someone living in a future-America where many pandemics have ravaged the world and things seem to have taken a dystopian turn. The chapters in this section move between the 2093 narrative and an earlier one featuring the grandfather character as he tries to balance his high-flying scientific career with his husband and son, who are unsettled by moving to America from Hawaii and by what the scientist is up to. The story is told very well, and there’s a lot of interesting moral complexity throughout, raising questions about what should be done to control viruses, but never at the expense of focusing on the human elements. The general dystopian setting isn’t overdone, as some can be, and there’s an interesting moment of reflection in one of the letters about what a dystopia even is.

Some people might feel that this is three books in one, but personally, I felt that they gained a lot by being together as one. In particular, the first and the third sections benefitted from each other by twisting around ideas of utopia and dystopia, marriage and freedom, and what it means to be known as a part of a family (the latter is also very important in the second section). I think if the book was just the third part, I would enjoy it less than I did, because it would feel too clearly like a COVID-19 take on dystopian fiction, rather than the larger exploration of a lot of themes that To Paradise is.

Though the third section of the book can hit close to home at times, To Paradise isn’t trying to destroy the reader as A Little Life is, but instead paints a complex vision of people looking towards paradise, towards something better, and realising that they cannot help or protect others. It explores divisions in societies and violence towards groups of people, but also divisions and tensions within different kinds of family units. The length and format will probably put some people off, especially if the start of the first section leaves you wondering where the book is going, but actually the epic nature of the book worked well for me, weaving in a lot of questions and things to consider. It’s not perfect, but it is quite an experience.