May 15, 2022
The novel is a divergent story of history, living through a generational reincarnation that highlights the fallacies of humanity and its refusal to change. The author, Hanya Yanagihara, created a story that brings up topics that still plague the real world, like colonialism and racism. However, she takes a twist in her story, taking an alternative reality where sexuality is destigmatised and an America that is fractured with territories such as the Free States is presented.
To Paradise is split up into three books, where book one is set in 1893 Washington Square, New York. North-eastern states have seceded from the US, yet in this account of the late 19th century, the Civil War was the reason for separating the US rather than uniting it. Instead, we are given territories that allow same-sex marriages while also allowing to arrange those marriages. It is a section that can be best recognised as a love story where David Bingham, the main character, finds himself in a situation of choosing between marrying someone that was arranged or another person. Book two of the novel is an extension of the previous section, whereas it is the shortest of the books. This is where the running the theme of the reoccurrence of names and places. Set in 1993, it is following another character purposefully named David Bingham (a reincarnation), wherein this version of the character he is an heir to a throne that no longer exists since the annexing of Hawai’i. Then, in book three is set in the 2090s, where in the distant future, the world has faced several pandemics of diseases that have left an ever-lasting effect on the population.
The running theme for this book is the reoccurrences of names and places throughout the three books. The townhouse at Washington Square that is first mentioned in the first book is seen through out the rest of the book. It is like a monument that bridges the past, present and future of the novel’s characters and their reincarnations. “If he left Washington Square, how would he ever know where he truly was in the world?…But how could anywhere else feel so exactly his?” The townhouse is personified in the sense of being the anchor for the book, tethering the diverging stories together. Another thing is that all the main characters of the three books, they all have a grandfather who significantly affects their lives and the story. By using the similarities of the characters, what can be seen is the lasting effects of pandemics and the choices that society as a whole takes, which cause the problems for those in the future.
Using the same names and following a consistent scheme of previous books, the novel ends up being complicated to track—this also considering the large page count. The direction that the author is taking this story is clear, and it does a great job of making a complete story.
The structure and the plot of the novel are like ‘what if’ scenarios, in which the Civil War retained colonialism and racism while introducing an accepted reality of homosexuality. These are some of the ways that the books propel the reader to ask questions—the kind of questions that ask about the ripple effect of small actions.
How would things change if some actions were done differently?
What if David’s grandfather had let him in on what he was doing or his thoughts on his relationship with Edward?
It is through these small choices that the reader is left to wonder whether things could’ve gone different for the characters. Even though it is great to think about the “what if”, but the book progresses forward as if these events were fatalistic.
Yet this book is far too convoluted to be simply playing with fate. Instead of worrying about the small actions causing big problems, it is the big actions causing bigger problems. In book 3, Charlie’s grandfather had written a letter that talks about the pandemic that had ravaged the 21st century. It was in the letter the grandfather talks about how each new wave of disease was another way of tightening the grip of totalitarianism. In Charlie’s world, Beijing runs the world, and in this future, it takes up common tropes of a dystopic future. Such as the internet being shut down, the press being suppressed and being state-controlled, banned books, and ever-looming secret police. The inclusion of the grandfather in either of the books is a representation of passing knowledge down to the next generation. It is with this passing of generational knowledge that is almost fatalistic and just as how these characters share the same name, they’re also somewhat doomed to repeat the same mistakes of their past lives.
The book is ambitious in the way it took to portray the story and its characters. It brings up the questions of the current pandemic situation, and whether the lockdowns, vaccinations and the overall reaction to Covid-19 greatly reflect this book. There are several pandemics to happen throughout the novel, and it becomes that haunting echo as the story progresses. Yanagihara has an eloquent way of writing her story where her words are intimate and intense, especially the way she describes her characters, going beyond appearances, almost peering into their souls. It is a whole experience when reading this novel, and with its large page count, it is an endeavour.
Even though the charm of this book is the repeated usage of names and places, it can be a little disorienting. Her writing is wonderfully done, but some might find it too much considering the harsh topics that arise in the novel. It is also widely considered the three books seem unbalanced, and the reader may have some difficulty in creating a nuanced connection.
It is a culturally heavy tale, that includes issues that humanity is currently struggling to solve. Like a looking-glass, these books peer into the concepts of democracy, freedom, racism and, all of which are told through a generational perspective.
Originally published at tribune.com.pk