Book Review: ‘To Heaven’ by Chania Yanagihara

by Chania Yanagihara

Can an Asian American woman write a great American novel? A great American novel from New York to Hawaii, bypassing the Midwest? Can it move from realism to dystopia? And – perhaps most importantly – can it focus on gay men?

It is Hanya Yanagihara’s considerable reputation that her new novel raises these questions. Consisting of more than 700 pages and exceeding 200 years, “To Heaven” begins in New York in 1893. We are given a patriarch, wealth, children; There’s an arranged marriage, an inheritance, a true love, a class divide, and an important twist. The masterfully paced and sensibly detailed tale makes hay with the conventions of the 19th century novel. But that’s not all. Yanagihara rewrites America with breathtaking audacity, that the Civil War produced not a united country in this narrative, but a swath of land, including the Free States. In this nation-in-nation, same-sex marriage is allowed – but there are also arranged marriages, lending nuance to the picture.

Even as Yanagihara carries the action from New York to Hawaii and back again, she continues to rewrite history in other centuries as well, negotiating three major and nine minor time shifts and, most strikingly, taking her characters off the stage only to bring them back, in other ages. and in other disguises, over and over. To cite just one of countless examples, David Bingham, heir to a mansion in Episode I, returns a century later as a legal adviser who is passionately in love with Charles Griffith. (We had met Charles earlier as the older, solid suitor who was rejected by David Bingham in Part I. Now he’s an even older but flamboyant and earthy partner in David’s firm, and David, who was once fair-skinned, is now mixed. race.)

There are dozens of other reincarnations like this one, and they’re both dazzling and confusing at the same time. If it’s hard to keep track of who is related to whom in a Russian novel, here we struggle to keep track of who becomes who, especially as Yanagihara deftly reimagines themes, situations, and motifs. It’s not just arranged marriages and class differences that recur. Pandemics reappear in an ever-changing fashion as mansions, triangles, illnesses, abandonments, deaths, letters and legacies, grandparents, lovers, cripples, caregivers, utopians, and more.

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