To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara review: An evocative novel about echoes, cycles and regrets
This month sees the long-awaited release of literary sensation Hanya ‘A Little Life’ Yanagihara’s new novel, In Paradise. There is no space here to summarize the many issues this ambitious novel covers in its 700 pages. Suffice it to say that over the two centuries it spans, beginning in a fin-de-siècle New York of the 1890s and ending in a totalitarian and climate-ravaged future, it poses fascinating questions about sexuality, race, and government responses to existential issues. threats. What sticks around longest for the reader is the elegant and evocative writing with which Yanagihara tells his emotionally powerful stories.
We read of frail tempers and broken bodies, the corrupting stench of unearned wealth and privilege
Interesting territory is opened up in the three “books” that make up the novel. In the first book, “Washington Square” (a reference to a popular novel by Henry James), we are introduced to a 19th century New York in which same-sex relationships are commonplace and uncontroversial.
Bearing in mind how much the world depicted by obvious influences Henry James and Edith Wharton relies on unchallenged and oppressive gender-based rules, how are ranks and hierarchies organized in this alternate universe? A fun board game; imagine Pride & Prejudice if Mr. Bennett were taxed with marrying off his sons to the sons of wealthy families.
Yanagihara’s conclusion is that gender freedom does not guarantee a more liberated society for either sex. Oppression based on racial prejudice, class division, and rigid, myopic family rules remain. She suggests that human beings tend to impose imbalances of judgement, control and power, regardless of contemporary social trends. In short, life is always made difficult for someone.
This idea is present in all three books, in 1990s Manhattan plagued by AIDS and in a dystopian future characterized by fear of disease, climate catastrophe and state control.
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A little life divided readers into two camps: those deeply affected by a tragic story of trauma and abuse, and those who felt cynically manipulated by a dark and unrelenting fictional memoir of misery. In Paradise is overall a softer read and may prove more palatable to opponents of Yanagihara. His deepest “what ifs” are those involving his authentically portrayed relationships, some joyous, others horribly dysfunctional. These tend to be either between gay lovers or young men and fathers or grandparents full of regret for their mishandling of fragile childhood moments.