TO PARADISE by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador £20, 720 pp)


by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador £20, 720 pp)

Admired and despised in equal measure, Yanagihara’s previous novel, A Little Life, was a punishing chronicle of the lifelong sexual abuse inflicted on its protagonist, a New York lawyer. Her hotly awaited new book may prove just as divisive.

Comprising three narratives running into the 2090s, it opens in an alternative 19th-century America, where marriage between men is the norm. David, a sickly heir, is urged to wed a respectable widower, Charles, having secretly fallen for Edward, a dazzling colleague of lower social rank.

The book’s early frisson lies in figuring out the codes of its parallel past, which are no less bound up with shame. Other sections take place in the 1990s and in an overheated New York after several pandemics.

The heady impact of the novel’s emotional dilemmas lies in the richness with which Yanagihara imagines the shifting texture of American society across her bleak trajectory.

Its girth is taxing, for sure, but I was spellbound. Amazing.


by Joy Williams (Tuskar Rock £14.99, 224 pp)

While climate-ravaged dystopias may well be ten-a-penny in our environmentally jittery moment, no one could fairly accuse U.S. writer Williams, 77, of jumping on a bandwagon.

Among the strangest, most exciting authors at work today, she has always been a writer who prizes slantwise insinuation over crystalline clarity.

So if her new novel transports us to a post-apocalyptic America, it’s a safe bet it isn’t one you’ve seen before.

We follow Khristen, a lost girl who winds up among a rural band of elderly militants out to avenge the Earth’s ruin. Instead of pulse-racing science-fiction, we get survivalist comedy driven by the trademark peculiarity of Williams’s high-voltage dialogue, as well as some canny narrative framing that always leaves us unsure what, if anything, is happening in any conventional sense.

A perplexing eco-odyssey of bottomless philosophical import, akin to Mad Max as told by Samuel Beckett.

A TIME OUTSIDE THIS TIME by Amitava Kumar (Picador £14.99, 272 pp)


by Amitava Kumar (Picador £14.99, 272 pp)

How can a novel best deal with the headlines? Perhaps more than ever, it’s a question preoccupying authors determined not to be outdone by the times. Still, I’m not sure the answer quite lies in these mazily discursive musings on truth, politics and fiction, narrated by Satya, an Indian-born U.S. writer who resembles Kumar himself.

He’s struggling to write a book at a retreat in Italy, where he is reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in search of inspiration for how to portray the era of Donald Trump and Indian PM Narendra Modi.

As the pandemic hoves into view — it’s early 2020 — the story zig-zags through tweets, magazine cuttings and conversations, but by far the most riveting segments retread Kumar’s own non-fiction about the war on terror’s impact on migrants in the U.S.

The impression, overall, is of a fairly self-indulgent project doing more work for the author than his readers.

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