To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, pub. Pan Macmillan “Look outside,” a man in a present-day Central Asian dictatorship says to one of the narrators in Hanya Yanagihara’s monumental new novel, To Paradise , pointing to the bustling street below, “does this look like a dystopia to you?” “What if this was Heaven?” thinks another, about to relinquish security and wealth for an uncertain dream of love in a hostile land. “Would he know if it were?” Yes, the much anticipated follow-up to Yanagihara’s viral bestseller A Little Life (2015) is similarly immodest in its ambitions. How do we recognise our various utopias, and make “as many Heavens” as we need? And what if they are inexorably in conflict? Yanagihara answers these questions – rarely sacrificing her exquisite talent for sensual detail and emotional epiphany – through three narratives, or “Books”, rooted in 1893, 1993 and 2093, respectively, and fanning out to encompass both reimagined American history and a pandemic-riven future so plausibly terrifying it reads like a curse. Beware – the same sleepless nights, missed appointments and domestic neglect await the readers of To Paradise as those of A Little Life . The structure of the new novel splits like a zygote: the first Book a single narrative told chronologically, the second a mirrored dyad, the third shuttling between five seasons in the present and a series of letters from 50 to six years earlier. Characters do not so much live on as reincarnate in different but related forms, David Binghams, Edward Bishops and Charles Griffiths “echoing in the memory” like T.S. Eliot’s time-bending footfalls. Throughout, paradises are sought to bring together the sibling principles of freedom and safety. Book One’s Binghams are thus resolutely emancipated, in an alternative 19th century North-Eastern America of “The Free States”, where equality of access to jobs, education and the institution of marriage, irrespective of gender or sexuality, has been giddily accelerated from the present day. But the fault lines of race remain, if just out of sight, and divisions of class are paramount: fabulously rich but neurasthenic David Bingham is the third of his siblings for whom a suitable (enough) same-sex marriage is arranged, precipitating the dangerous, life-altering project of choosing his own partner, whatever the risks of ruin or deceit. Questions of statehood and personal and political self-determination predominate in Book Two, set in Yanagihara’s native Hawaii, at various points vanquished kingdom, diverse but conflicted US state, and seceded republic. This David Bingham – descended from both Christian missionaries and indigenous royalty – has much less agency, and indeed narrates the second half of the Book from mute captivity in a sanatorium; he has lost his sanity to love and the false utopia of revolution. And then, finally, toweringly, the impossible trade-offs of individual and social responsibility in a future world of catastrophic viruses in Book Three. David, still gay, recedes in this narrative; the freedoms of sexuality having been marginalised and ultimately sacrificed to the brutal demands of repopulation. It is his wife, the vulnerable, possibly cognitively impaired Charlie (their marriage has in turn been arranged for her own safety), and her Hawaiian, but new American state-building grandfather Charles, who now take centre stage. Tim Murphy’s Christodora an exploration of Aids in New York That the central, second Book of the novel is also preoccupied with the impact of the Aids epidemic is no accident. We return to Yanagihara’s ground zero, New York in the 1990s, in particular Washington Square, which morphs over the novel’s 200-year span from Jamesian elegance to a floodlit, drone-patrolled space of hawkers, climate refugees and procurers of “unsanctioned” goods. Here, as everywhere in the novel, Yanagihara’s social milieu remains resolutely masculine. Women are shadowy figures, constantly absconding, shedding children like skin, conveniently dying, although her gimlet eye for the loyalties of male homosociality is complemented by a fascinating exploration of grandparental relationships, each patriarch or matriarch doing their best – with different degrees of success or control – to steer young wards on the path to the twin towers of liberty and security. In it all, Yanagihara remains the high priestess of the particular, fascinated by human diversity, addicted to nuance, enamoured of the open ending: the floor creaking as a black freedom fighter shifts his weight from one foot to another during impassioned oratory; every conversation for a failing couple a “brittle piece of ice and just beneath […] a dark, freezing pool of water”; even in the excoriated world of the future, the “accidental” beauty of “the colour of the sky before it rained, the first green leaves of the acacia tree on Fifth Avenue before they were picked” (yes, to eat, illegally). She is also a consummate storyteller, unafraid of the gothic plot twist, the tantalising cliffhanger, the lurching hope and fear of a “will she/won’t she” narrative arc. “All I want for her,” Charles says of his granddaughter in Book Three, “is the ability to tell herself a story.” In the “flattened” world of controlled access to news, true or “fake”, an oral tradition of storytelling reasserts itself in the treeless shantytown of late 21st century Washington Square, and, in a teasing moment of meta-ness, the story of love and exile from Book One is glancingly revisited. But at the heart of To Paradise lies Yanagihara’s familiarly fervent respect for the human condition. No one strives harder for insight and an ethics of the self than a character in a Yanagihara novel, and no one, it seems, succeeds so partially in achieving them. How fragile the poetry of our lives, ruminates the self-recriminating Charles of To Paradise’s final pages; “some of us will die, but others of us will keep doing […] what our nature compels us to do, silent and unknowable and unstoppable in our rhythms.” For all its gorgeously manic renditions of Heaven and Hell, To Paradise refuses to land in either place, its characters working through their own special purgatories until the very, inconclusive, and bittersweet, end.