Author: Hanya Yanagihara
To Paradise is likely the first time I really got frustrated after reading a book and the reason for that is not that it is not compellingly written because it is, but because it is unfinished and not just once. In other words, this book consists of three books put in one with the only thing in common being the names of characters, which are the same throughout the book but have no connections otherwise as well as a link with Hawaii and its culture (this was very interesting, and I ended up looking for information about the history of Hawaii). Everything else is different and these are three different stories, each written compellingly but then with a torturous ending where there is no ending, and you wonder what happens next. I contemplated that maybe this is for us to decide but after reading a book such massive, and three stories, each one unfinished, I just decided this is just teasing or (hopefully), there is a continuation of this book where we find out.
The first and the last story of the To Paradise book are the best. In the first one we meet David who is a rich guy living in 19th century New York, which is an alternate version of New York where being gay does not matter because New York is part of the Free States territories that seceded from the United States but pay into their budget to keep their independence and safety. I loved this story, obviously not knowing there will be no ending, and kept saying ‘Yes, what if patriarchy did not happen? Would men be allowed to love each other? Would mental health illness among men be OK and acceptable?’ At the same time, I regretted the class division in this story as David still cannot see Edward without leaving his old, privileged life as it would be socially unacceptable. But is Edward a good guy or the bad guy? Can they create a life together or is Edward just trying to get David’s money? We will never know; the author has shown us both possibilities and left it unfinished.
In the second story, we read a story of another David living presumably during the rise of AIDS in the 1990s in New York and whilst David Bingham in the previous story did not want Charles Griffith as his husband, here he is his loving partner, but the story suddenly goes into David’s father’s life story where there is another Edward, a lover of his father. Again, this book is unfinished, and it is the weakest one of all three because the life of David gets abruptly interrupted with his father’s story and the author never goes back to it nor is the father’s story finished.
Finally, To Paradise narrates an astonishing story of a dystopian future happening hundreds of years in the future, however, by now I already read two unfinished stories and kept kicking off thinking whether I will ever find out what happened to Charlie. I didn’t. What I know after reading this book is that she lives in a dystopian future where the world is ravaged by various pandemics that happened several times in the past, and Charlie has suffered from one of the illnesses where the medicine changed her personality, and she lives with her grandfather Charles Griffith whose partner was Nathanael Bingham (the name of a grandfather in the story 1) and Charles raises Charlie on his own following the death of Nathanael and disappearance of his son David (OMG!). The story is very compellingly written and opens a myriad of questions that are painfully linked to the debate on the recent COVID-19 pandemic where many questioned liberties when national governments across the world instituted lockdowns and deprived people of a choice but even more, it questions people’s willingness to give their liberties away, which many proponents of lockdowns have indeed done and advocated. The book 3 tackles especially that part and shows how the US (which is no longer called the US) shifted towards dictatorship and compliance, and the chilling thing here is that unanswered question of whether Charlie’s medicine was deliberately made her compliant because, after it, she is obedient, does not think about things but mechanically fulfils what she needs to fulfil, and is generally an obedient citizen. Her grandfather found her a husband who is gay but willing to look after her even if he can’t love her because in the dystopian US gay marriages are no longer possible and whilst being gay is not illegal, it is frowned upon with the state giving extra food coupons and perks to couples so they can repopulate pandemic-ravaged population. It is an exaggerated version of what could happen when there is no democracy and liberty and when one worldview dominates the world. It is also a book which skillfully plays with conspiracies about medicines, science and vaccines in particular.
There is a sense of an Orwellian world here minus technology which does not seem to be pervasive in homes that only have a radio but no access to the internet and reading books, both of which are banned, again the Orwellian reference. Interestingly, a country that is free is New Britain where reading books and having gay marriages are free. This was really interesting because in the current Britain gay marriages are also legal, reading is obviously legal and there is lots of freedom generally. So, this was really interesting, particularly given the UK Government’s reluctance to institute lockdowns when the COVID-19 pandemic first started but also from the perspective of instituting brutal lockdowns after initial reluctance and the public’s overwhelming support for isolation and lockdowns, thus opening an interesting question as to why the UK was selected as the new Land of the Free, the latter being the concept I think the author explored in her book. Indeed, are we ever truly free?
Another thing that puzzles me is why all these authors and filmmakers continue to portray the US as a new totalitarian state that introduces Orwellian measures. Just remember the Hunger Games and districts where people fend for themselves, this book reminds us of that too.
Or Purge where the US government is trying to eradicate the population through annual purges (albeit in this book they try to encourage re-populating the country).
In addition, there is an interesting element of New York no longer having areas but Zones with Charlie living in Zone 8 (remember districts in the Hunger Games?). Travel is not allowed, nothing really and citizenship is not guaranteed because one needs to renew it. Plus, there is such a thing as the state enemy through association with enemies, which impacts Charlie and her husband, and it has also previously impacted her grandfather albeit during the insurgent rule where revolutionaries took the power over briefly. There is so much food for thought in this book including isolation camps where people are taken after contracting an illness, drones monitoring movement, social rules of not showing any emotion (again, you have to wonder about the medicine Charlie received as a child) and so on. This book is obviously the longest and the most compelling one of all three in my view.
What I also liked is the statement ‘to paradise’ as two men and one woman in these books are all trying to move elsewhere and find their own paradise and personal happiness, which is what we all want. I suppose we could say that the author is showing with these books that we all write our own stories and there is no certain end, because so many things change due to the agency and action of humans, but her vision of an ending would have been nice.
I really hope there is a continuation where we find out what happened to the characters. Otherwise, this is just wrong. But yes, if you want interesting books with compelling narratives, To Paradise is for you, but mind you, don’t try to connect all of David’s and Edwards and Charlies and Nathanael’s. Most certainly do not expect any clarity or ending after reading over 700 or 800 pages but do expect some interesting food for thought and some good writing.
Thank you for reading!