Heaven and hell in a heartbeat- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara’s tripartite novel coming after her Booker-shortlisted A Little Life, has a lot to live up to. Arranged in three thematically interrelated segments, all the action unfolds in Washington Square, taking place 100 years apart and concerning sets of characters with the same names, though the similarity ends there. This structurally complex building could have easily collapsed but Yanagihara demonstrates dazzling dexterity to keep it all together.

At over 700 pages, it can be taxed on the modern reader but for those committed to seeing things through, the effort is bound to be richly rewarded. The prose is mouth-watering with the weft and warp of the narrative teeming with emotional intensity and complex sociopolitical commentary making for a disorienting experience.

The first section is set in the 1890s in a fictional New York. After the Civil War, the north-eastern states have seceded, forming the free states where homosexuality and gay marriage is acceptable although Black people are not offered citizenship and merely offered safe passage to destinations that will have them. Here, we encounter David, the scion of a pedigreed family who lives with his influential and powerful grandfather. Though coddled in the lap of affluence, David is a troubled youth, stricken with a peculiar illness that can be handled only by confinement. The patriarch, who loves David and is protective of him, tries to arrange a marriage with an older gentleman who is staid, stolid and fast becoming kissed with his intention of him.

But David meets Edward, a young and good-looking music teacher whose past raises many a red flag and is willing to risk everything in the hope that his unbearably bland existence becomes enriched by love. The second and weakest segment of the book, ‘Lipo-Wao-Nahele’, is divided into two parts with the first being about David who is involved with a wealthy, older man who also happens to be his boss. Set in the 1980s, David’s life of him is a merry-go-round of gay parties and decadence, or it would have been, if the city had not been in thrall of a horrific pandemic.

The next half is about another David who would have been king if his kingdom had not been lost. This alludes to the annexation of Hawaii by the US and the carnage left behind by colonialism. David Kawika’s life takes a dark turn when he finds himself in a toxic relationship with a man who might prove to be the death of him and leads to an estrangement with his son.

In the final futuristic section, which is easily the best, the sole female protagonist Charlie is a young woman who has been robbed of some of her faculties by a grievous childhood illness, which leaves her ill-equipped to deal with a totalitarian regime that came into being after wave upon wave of pandemics brought humanity to its knees.

Her grandfather, who was one of the well-meaning architects of this dystopia, loves her fiercely and will do anything to make sure she is safe, even if it means condemning her to a loveless marriage with a gay man and an existence leached entirely of pleasure.

As a straight woman, Yanagihara’s choice to portray the inner lives of gay protagonists is iffy, especially since these characters seem entirely imagined from a voyeuristic perspective. And the constant exposure via letter writing is a stylistic device that feels artificial. But these drawbacks aside, To Paradise is an extraordinary effort. The characters seem afflicted with an aching vulnerability that makes them seem constantly overwhelmed and hamstrung by their real and imagined inadequacies.

Wallowing in a wellspring of weakness, their doom seems inevitable irrespective of whether they make it to utopia or remain entrapped in dystopia because the wounds within refuse to heal. Through these fragile, fractured souls, Yanagihara asks if life is worth prolonging at all, if the quality of it is unendurably shoddy. She asks if it is responsible to bring new life into an existence that is inevitably miserable. She asks if there is a point to a safe but suffocating existence, bereft of flavor and joy. She asks if it is worth risking it all on the improbable but irresistible promise of paradise, knowing full well that it is impermanent.

There are more uncomfortable questions, but there is also a wealth of heart-wringing sorrow soaking every single page that will leave you in tears and profoundly grateful for a moving book that leaves you feeling fundamentally altered.

To Paradise
By: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 720
Price: Rs 536


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