When word got out that Hanya Yanagihara had a new novel coming out, the running joke was to schedule therapy sessions around its release date. Her previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted bestseller A Little Life (2015) – a harrowing tale of abuse – is a perennial favourite on TikTok “books that made me cry” reels.
The good – or bad – news, depending on whether you’re after a tearjerker, is that To Paradise leaves readers’ eyes dry. The saga imagines an alternative America in three eras: at the ends of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Its three parts are seemingly related through recurring character names (based on American missionaries to Hawaii, where Yanagihara spent part of her childhood) and places, including a townhouse on Washington Square. Unlike the reincarnation device in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004), however, there are no further links between the characters.
“The people always had different selves, but the names themselves remain,” Yanagihara has explained. “Just like the name of America remains for each generation, but America itself is something quite different.” Book I is set in 1893, with New York part of a group of “Free States” after the southern colonies have seceded. Although marriage equality makes the Free States seem more progressive than the rest of the country, blacks are still not accepted as full citizens.
Alluding to Henry James’s Washington Square, David Bingham, the eldest heir to a wealthy founding family, rejects an arranged marriage to a widower after falling for a musician whom his grandfather suspects is after his money. As David prepares to forgo his inheritance to follow his heart “to paradise”, Yanagihara truncates the story without resolution.
She teases us by having another character hear David’s story two centuries later, only to have the storyteller disappear before finishing. “I knew it was foolish, because they weren’t even real people,” says the frustrated listener, “but I thought about them often. I wanted to know what had become of them”…
Read the full review online in the Irish Times