He had come into the habit, before dinner, of taking a walk around the park: ten laps, as slow as he pleased on some evenings, briskly on others, and then back up the stairs of the house and to his room to wash his hands and straighten his tie before descending again to the table.
Confession time: I had not really planned on reading To Paradise. One: the size (all 720 pages of it!) Two: the trauma that still haunts from A Little Life. Three: an amazingly bad review I read before the book was published (which, for the life of me, I cannot find again).
The week it was released into the world, however, we ended up with three reading copies at work. I let them sit on our staff shelf for five days. Two got snaffled up quickly and one just sat there…until I picked it up on day five and took it to lunch with me, just to see what it was like.
A Little Life, while being utterly enthralling, absorbing, unputdownable stuff, was also extremely traumatic reading. I had to skim read sections. In fact, I date this book as the time I stopped being comfortable reading trauma fiction. I will read trauma memoirs and history in an attempt to bear witness to the suffering of another, but fictional trauma now feels completely unnecessary to me.
By trauma, I do not mean the grief and loss of someone dying or contending with an illness or living through a natural disaster or a life-changing accident. By trauma, I mean Jude’s life (as well as his three friends) in A Little Life, where every single bad, awful thing that can possible happen to anyone ever, happens in one book. In hindsight, it was too much.
But that’s the thing with Yanagihara’s books. Hindsight and reflection may cause you to doubt and question what just happened, but all the while you’re in it, nothing else matters.
To Paradise is a book in three parts. The reader (or at least this reader) spent the entire second section trying to work out what was going on with the whole David, Charles, Edward thing. Were they descendants or archetypes?
The first section is set in an alternate 1893 where America has divided into various countries and colonies. The Free States allow gay marriage, female suffrage and help slaves to escape from the South (although they don’t encourage them to stay in the Free States but move onto other regions). David’s grandfather has arranged a marriage for him with the very eligible and suitable, but much older Charles. Meanwhile David falls in love with bad boy Edward.
Book two jumps one hundred years to 1993. This David is living in an AIDS affected New York with his older lover Charles. We then jump back in time to hear his father’s story, another David, living in Hawai’i who spent his life being enthralled by the dubious charms of…you guessed it, Edward.
Confession time again. While I raced through the first story without pausing for breath and devoured the first section of 1993, father David’s story dragged. And I started to doubt what I was doing with this tome. Thankfully it was a short section.
Book three picked up the pace again. Set in Zone Eight, this story jumps backwards and forwards fifty years to reveal how the brave new dystopian world of 2093 came to be. Starting at the 360 page mark in the book, part three comprises the bulk of the book.
In 2093 we see the world through young Charlie’s eyes, a survivor of the devastating 2070 virus. Her grandfather, Charles, became her primary caregiver after her father, David was arrested and taken away for being a dissident. Before he too was taken away, her grandfather arranged a marriage for her with a caring, sensitive man who would take care of her – Edward. But then another David turns up, threatening the quiet, carefully constructed life that Charlie had made for herself. Clearly, this section threw my archetype theory out the window. Or did it?
The David’s were the lynchpin of each piece. Not always likeable, often confused, suggestable and struggling to find their place in the world. The Charles’ were the safe characters. Usually older, wiser, calm, mature and dependable. They were more certain of their place in the world, or at least just got on with the job at hand. The Edward’s represented risk or freedom, adventure or possibility – a way out.
There is obviously a whole lot more to the story than this. The title promises some kind of happiness or hope, yet the story centres itself around fractured societies, marginalised groups, disaffected individuals, loss of culture, climate change and the abuses of power.
Yanagihara’s books are an emotional read. Pain and pleasure, safety versus danger and the passing of time are her main themes. There is nothing particularly subtle about this, but golly, she knows how to take you along for the ride. Her rich, sumptuous language and intricate story-telling make you forget everything else.
I’m glad I read To Paradise, and do not begrudge the time (3 weeks) that it took to read. Except for one small section, I was utterly engaged with the story and the story-telling.
But would I recommend it?
If you were already leaning towards giving this book a go, then sure, I’m happy to encourage you. Otherwise, skip it. This is a book you need to be willing to go along for the whole, glorious, messy ride. But just like A Little Life, this reader is left with a slightly sour aftertaste wondering what on earth it was that I just read. What was the point? What did I learn? What was Yanagihara trying to say? Is it a masterpiece or not? Yanagihara’s latest book is sure to divide opinion, again. Which side will come down on?
Title: To Paradise Author: Hanya Yanagihara ISBN: 9781529077483 Imprint: Picador Pub Date: 11th January 2022 Format: Trade Paperback Pages: 720
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.