In search of lost eden
There are authors who build lush and ornate worlds by whimsically stringing words as they go along and then there are authors whose prose feels like finely chiseled pieces of blocks strung together with the perfect amount of agglutinant, making a splendid structural marvel and you read and re-read every line while indulging yourself until your soul sates. Paul Harding falls into the latter category. His prose seems so thoughtful and well structured that he possibly does that wild Wilde stuff of spending all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out. Now, there's no evidence that he actually does this but the supremely refined prose of Harding suggests that he probably would.
This Other Eden is a novel based on a true story, of a community's eviction from its home island. Malaga Island, called the Apple Island in the novel, was home to a mixed-race fishing community from the mid-1800s to 1912, when the state of Maine evicted 47 residents from their homes and exhumed and relocated their buried dead. Eight islanders were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded. Racism and the science of eugenics' prevalence of the time made this shameful act possible and this novel is a ruinous rumination on it all.
From the beginning we see Benjamin Honey, the patriarch of the island, longing to return to his past, in a garden, the Eden of his childhood where he reminisces about being with a woman who might or might not have been her mother.
Harding fills the book with biblical allusions from the start. As the grandchildren of Patience Honey—wife of Benjamin Honey, the first settler on the island—huddle around her, she tells them the tale of the flood that devastated the island and took all of them to the precipice of death and some, to actual death. Harding doesn't keep the parallel subtle as he draws it promptly, with the motley number of 30 or so people's only abode, Apple Island to Noah's Ark and the flood to the great flood of the Genesis.
The most predominantly palpable of the biblical allusions that he plays with is the concept of Eden. The Eden in the title alludes to two Edens. One, the Apple Island and the other, a garden from Benjamin Honey's past which he wants to recreate and yet, the novel ends with no Eden recreated and the one which was present, decimated by the government—the Eden lost and the inhabitants evicted.
The theme of reckoning with the racist past of America is not new to American authors. They have been exploring this theme for a long time now and Harding isn't unique in this aspect but This Other Eden can be called extraordinary because of its arresting prose—the best thing about this book, even more so than the complex themes he explores. His sentences are usually long, words strung with one another like a long flower garland that once starts doesn't seem to end and yet you're being drawn into reading every word with utmost attention and cannot exhale until you finish a sentence which always feels like a passage and a little story in itself.
The sheer prosaic power of Harding is most evident when he narrates the incident of the hurricane that struck the island in September of 1815, 22 years after Benjamin and Patience Honey had come to the island and begun the settlement. Vacillating between a first-person and a third-person narration, Harding makes the hurricane's whirlpool and soul-sucking devastation so gasping that, for a moment, I forgot I wasn't actually experiencing a hurricane myself.
The inhabitants of the Apple Island, "a granite pebble in the frigid Atlantic shallows", are the central characters of this novel and a lot of these characters have a meaty depth and development but amongst all the characters of this novel, the one who's the most intriguing is not one of those inhabitants of the island but rather astonishingly an outsider named Matthew Diamond, a white missionary, who comes to the island to teach the children. His is a character of, at once, deep folly and humane goodwill. He's the embodiment of racism and white dominance in the novel and he admittedly feels disgusted by the people of the island as he says, "I have wholly believed if appallingly never felt—that all men are my brothers, all women my sisters, all souls my family—I nevertheless feel a visceral, involuntary repulsion whenever I am in the presence of a living Negro".
Notwithstanding his folly, he wants to teach the children of the islanders, and the children, in contrast to, grown up people, don't seem to arouse a repulsion in him. His landing on the island doesn't have any fiendish motives but his deeds on the island would only draw the attention of the mainlanders. He's not innocent in the sense of being blameless, but in the sense of being oblivious to the greater catastrophe into which bringing a school would draw the islanders in.
This Other Eden is not one of those lengthier books spanning 500 pages and instead it's a scrawny one, of just 224 pages, but Harding is an exceptional miniaturist, he has the extraordinary skill to carve so much in so little a canvas.
Paul Harding is one of those rare writers who can pen down words so precisely to convey what he intends to without resorting to any "clumsy jumble" that his prose feels like refined marble yet being capable of vigorously penetrating through every trope. All three of Harding's novels are testament to this incredible capability of his. He shines mightily in Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009), dips a tad low in his second novel Enon (Random House, 2013) but This Other Eden is a triumphant return for him. He not only matches his debut Pulitzer winner Tinkers, but rather remarkably, he outshines himself with this one.
This Other Eden has been shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize and is a finalist for this year's National Book Awards. It will only be fitting if he ends up winning.
Najmus Sakib studies Linguistics at the University of Dhaka. Reach him on X at @sakib221b.