Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Yeon
“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Yeon, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.
Headlines: The latest 700-page novel by Hanya Yanagihara, the Booker prized author of A Little Life. For her third novel, To Paradise, Yanagihara writes a part historical and part futuristic novel structured as ‘three books’; that explores privilege and suffering, the grandfather-child relationship and the dark dystopia borne of pandemics. But it mostly stands out for a BIPOC writer’s storytelling from a position of strength.
Mood: Not a beachside holiday book, yet best read where the air holds the perfume of the sea. Sit in a safe and serene spot when the clouds overhead have darkened with the rain; hold this book, look up from its pages and wonder if you are here, in your paradise.
Pair with: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I first read about To Paradise in a weekend newspaper magazine in January and felt instantly distrusting of both book and author. The magazine article’s gist seemed to be: a globally anticipated ‘epic novel’ of 2022, by a commercially successful Asian-Hawaiian writer based in New York, not necessarily writing about BIPOC themes (hmmm a tad suss, I thought). And what is this book about, again? The piece didn’t really seem to say, yet it was – unapologetically – a publicity piece. Being printed on paper so plasticy and shiny, impossible to recycle, didn’t help me warm to either book nor author.
Yet, I wanted to be able to say that I had read the ‘it book’ of the year.
So I decided to take a go hard or go home approach. I bought A Little Life, Yanagihara’s second novel which shot her to literary fame, and started to read it as a way of ‘getting to know the author’ while waiting for To Paradise to become available in Australia (we in the Antipodes often have to wait for global sensations to reach our far-flung shores!).
By reading A Little Life, a story about suffering and survival explored through the friendship of four men in New York, I came to two conclusions about Yanagihara.
Her books are heavy.
On a simple note, 700-pages (both books are of this length) weighs a ton. Your wrists and shoulders carry the weight of it with you for days or weeks to read it.
On a more literary note, this metaphysical weight echoes the heaviness of the theme she explores: debilitating human suffering that breaks not only hearts but the spirits of those who have fallen victim through no fault of their own. Yanagihara details the anatomy of abuse and the trail of trauma it leaves behind, resisting the impulse to shy away from the brutality – and the sheer evil – that humans are capable of inflicting on each other, particularly the vulnerable. In equal measure, she knows the depth and the power of, perfection love: how it heals, especially those who have considered – resigned – themselves as deeply imperfect, unworthy of love because of the suffering they had endured.
She is ahead of her time: she writes in a ‘post BIPOC era’ as a female Asian writer.
Once I started turning of the first pages of Hanagiyara’s prose, I realised her writing is unhurried. It’s not fast paced or compact, nor does it seek to compete with the reader’s attention in this social media driven hyper-information rich age of ours.
Yanagihara’s characters carry suffering but they are also privileged, in class, wealth, education or all of the above. Being a minority doesn’t lead to the ‘misery porn’ genre under her pen. As an Asian female writer, she has heroed white gay men as her protagonists, navigating the potential landmines of ‘cancel culture’ sensitivities. It is as if Yanagihara dares to write what she wishes, how she wishes to write it and lets the readers (and the publishing industry) follow. Isn’t this the definition of ‘post BIPOC era’ writing?
But hold on, I hear you ask: what is To Paradise about? As much as I wouldn’t like my review to be like that weekend newspaper magazine article on the book, it’s hard to summarise. It’s sort of part regency era ‘Bridgerton-esque’ romance (book 1), part modern Hawaiian family history saga reminiscent of the movie ‘The Descendents’ (book 2), and part science-fiction dystopian story that reminded me of the film ‘Gattaca’ (book 3). How can all these genres be in one book and still make sense, you say?
Well, Yanagihara uses a couple of structural tools: first, Washington Square as the locational pin that holds the plot together across the 100 years in which the story spans; and second, the lineage of the Bingham family and their friends, lovers and spouses (my tip to readers: try and keep good track of which ‘David’, ‘Charlies’ and ‘Edward’ is being referred to – it’s a bit of a struggle).
But, to me, the most important part of To Paradise is that it reminds us how a dystopia of the future for some is a living hell for many now – think war in and refugees from Ukraine, heavy handed state lockdowns on COVID, defectors of despot regimes. And at the same time, from any dark, unimaginable inflictions of ill and evil, paradise exists for each of us now, if only we have the courage to seek it and go towards our loved ones whose perfect love for our imperfect selves is the only proven remedy.
Buy this book as a gift to a reader who is worthy. This rare and long read is a story ahead of its time; and To Paradise is a literary experience that rewards the bibliophiles – the believers in the power of books – among us.
Here’s to happy reading,
This Korean woman reads
You can follow Anna Yeon on Instagram by clicking on Annayeonwrites
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