In the opening chapter of Paul Harding’s This Other Eden (shortlisted for the Booker Prize), we are told the story of a former slave called Benjamin Honey and his Irish wife Patience, about how circa 1793, they were the first settlers on an island off the coast of Maine. Based on the real-life Malaga Island, the island of Harding’s novel is dubbed “Apple Island”, after the apple trees planted by Benjamin. In a searing image, we are shown how Patience stitches together a flag from stray bits of the Portuguese flag, the Irish flag, and, of course, the American stars and stripes.
Both the apple tree and the home-made patchwork flag may feel like they are on-the-nose symbols of “dark Americana” (the apple trees, for example, are portentous reminders of “strange fruit”, the euphemism used to describe black bodies hanging from trees) but within the framework of Harding’s story, they work brilliantly. The novel’s epigram tells us the real-life history of Malaga Island, that in 1912, a tiny multi-racial community living peacefully on the island was destroyed, torn asunder by governmental tyranny—black and/or mixed-race residents evicted, their children sent to faraway boarding schools, as many as eight residents committed to the mental asylum. This Other Eden is Harding’s lush, multi-modal, achingly humane fictionalisation of this atrocity.
America has always had a strong tradition of writers like Annie Dillard, Nicholson Baker and Marilynn Robinson (who, incidentally, taught Harding at Iowa), whose ideas-per-page count is off the charts. Their books demand nothing less than your undivided attention and typically, one reads them 20-30 pages at a time, because of the sheer density of ideas. Harding, too, is a writer who rewards careful, deliberate reading and one who richly deserves a wider readership.
Harding’s careful, somewhat fussy style first drew attention in 2009, when his debut novel, Tinkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize. Another novel, Enon, followed in 2013—both books are set in rural New England and are concerned with big, weighty ideas of mortality, suffering and the passage of time (Tinkers has a clockmaker and his son as the two main characters). Utterly gorgeous descriptions abound and interiority is always the main event; there are plenty of old people looking back at their lives with awe and wonder and gratitude and regret, although overt religiosity is used sparingly. Harding’s lines swing for the fences; it’s a bit of an all-or-nothing style.
This Other Eden presents us with funny-sad portraits of its main characters, descendants of the original settlers, as well as newcomers to the island. Esther Honey is an often confused old lady and descendant of the original Honeys, who’s still traumatised by memories of her violent father. There’s her son, Eha, and three grandchildren, Ethan, Charlotte and little Tabitha, who inhales Shakespeare and Latin poetry for fun. A carpenter called Zachary Hand to God Proverbs sits by himself all day inside the hollow of a really old tree; his life’s work is to carve biblical scenes upon that tree.
Harding isn’t trying to shock his readers or evoke some ersatz idea of empathy. His goal is no more and no less than to evoke the messy, complicated reality of these highly secluded lives, over a century ago. How they lived, what they ate, what they felt about “discovering” racial equations against their will—there’s a strong implication, although this is never spelt out, that the children and some of the adults on Apple Island neither know nor care about America’s history of slavery.
Matthew Diamond, though, is the most intriguing character. He’s a dedicated, retired schoolteacher who arrived on the island years ago, and you can tell he truly wants to embrace the intellectual and progressive ideas that he has learnt somewhat mechanically. It is his books and wisdom that go into educating children like Tabitha. It’s also his intervention with the state government that triggers the eventual destruction of Apple Island and the atrocities visited upon its black residents. And yet, he is not a garden variety racist.
We are told that he wrote a letter to a friend shortly after landing on Apple Island. Among other things, this letter spells out the complicated route his bigotry takes. “(…) despite all the spiritual & intellectual convictions by which my God & my Scripture have fortified me since I can remember, & in which 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.”
Diamond, therefore, represents white imperialism but also white guilt. When Tabitha Honey, one of his young students, is unfairly grilled by the visiting committee, Diamond is very angry indeed. How is a young girl who has never been off the island supposed to know what a telephone (a recent invention in those days) looks like or who Andrew Taft (the then US president) is? He retorts to the committee that the girl could answer their questions in Latin.
By the time Diamond realises what his “noble intentions” have led to, it’s too late and he cannot stop the impending destruction of Apple Island. Throughout the novel, Harding takes great pains to remind the reader that being well-intentioned is seldom enough to negotiate the vagaries of a frightening new world.
Diamond reminded me of another recent racist character that was similarly complex and very well fleshed out, Arnold Ridgeway from Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton in the eponymous Amazon Prime Video series).
Ridgeway is a professional slave hunter, someone who pursues fleeing slaves and drags them back to their masters—even though he himself has no interest in enslaving people (indeed, he frees the only slave he ever owned after just a day; the freed man eventually helps Ridgeway capture other slaves). His father, a blacksmith, doesn’t approve but in a shockingly self-aware moment, Ridgeway justifies his stance by saying that he may enslave people, but his father made the chains that were used to bind the caught-again slaves.
The only difference is that while Ridgeway understands and embraces his role (justifying it with the “manifest destiny” theory that said white people have a God-given right to North America), his father hypocritically denies complicity.
Diamond’s strong characterisation—as well as the novel’s overall astuteness, attention to detail and insistence on capturing the texture of lived reality—are down to Harding’s remarkably malleable prose. Harding has produced just three novels in nearly two decades of writing but they have been well worth the wait.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.