Does Hanya Yanagihara Go To Paradise?

By Lucy Scholes
Author Hanya Yanagihara. Photo / Getty Images

About a third of the way through Hanya Yanagihara’s awe-inspiring new novel, the narrator of the section in question  a Hawaiian boy directly descended from the island’s royal family  has the significance of his lineage impressed upon him.

As Hawaii becomes the 50th American state, his mother impresses upon him: “This doesn’t change anything, you know, Kawika. Your father should still be king. And someday, you should still be king, too. Remember that.” Kawika is struck by the peculiarity of her syntax: the “strange mix of tenses, a sentence of promises and grievances, reassurances and consolations”.

To Paradise itself might be best described thus. It too deals in multiple tenses: an America that could have been, one close to the world we know, and one that could still come into being.

The novel is split into three “books”. Each exists in its own bubble, but a Washington Square townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village takes centre stage in all three. Meanwhile, characters share names and traits, and themes and motifs re-emerge: illness and disability; absentee parents; the sometimes terrible, sometimes extraordinary lengths we’ll go to in order to protect those we love; the question of what separates life from mere existence; and our desire to believe in the possibility of creating a better world, even if better for some is never better for all.

Opening with a counterfactual version of the late 19th century  in which New York is one of eight Free States where same-sex marriage is legal, and (white) women have the same rights as (white) men  we’re then transported to 1990s Manhattan, where AIDS is the ominous backdrop to what’s otherwise a world of enviable privilege.

Finally, the novel draws to a close with an unnerving portrait of New York at the end of the 21st century. Ravaged by increasingly deadly pandemics and climate change, its surviving citizens live under draconian state surveillance.

"Zone Eight", this final section, might cut a little too close to the bone for some, but Yanagihara has always leant fearlessly into what horrifies, disgusts and terrifies us. Critics of her Booker Prize-shortlisted debut A Little Life likened its graphic depiction of child abuse and self-harm to trauma porn.

“Zone Eight” induces its own visceral reaction: a cold sense of dread crept up my spine, yet the characters are so well drawn and the plot so well paced, I couldn’t put it down.

The relentlessness of A Little Life was magnificent. The way it drilled so deeply, again and again, into the suffering of its central character was a virtuosic imitation of what it's like to be trapped in the never-ending cycles of abuse and trauma. Yanagihara's reach here is different  broader and more diffuse.

She's concerned with the universal as much as the specific, and the ramifications that the choices individuals make have on the society around them. Although perhaps not as ruthlessly immersive as A Little Life, nevertheless the world-building on display here is nothing short of breath-taking.

Yanagihara proves herself equally skilled at reproducing the rich textures of an Edith Wharton novel as she is at invoking an alarmingly believable dystopia. If there’s a slightly weaker link, it’s the lengthy middle book  untethered from the ballast of Washington Square, the story told here in Hawaii drifts  but I’m nit-picking.

There’s a moment towards the end of the first book when David  scion of a blue-blooded New York family, who has fallen in love with a penniless piano teacher  is poleaxed by a letter that exposes his lover’s chequered past. “It was as if he had experienced the story rather than read it,” Yanagihara writes.

To Paradise feels exactly like this. In the same way that the failed utopian projects described therein aren't for everyone, this is a novel that won't please all readers. But whether you find it beautiful or terrifying, read it as a story of fear and despair or one of solace and hope, one thing is impossible to deny: Yanagihara has taken speculative fiction to a whole new level.

The Daily Telegraph

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