This Other Eden by Paul Harding

Clementine’s Take:

In the late 18th century, the formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey and his Irish wife Patience establish a small colony on an island off the coast of Maine. Over a century later, their descendants and a few others still live on the island – a group of about twenty semi-self-sufficient mixed-race islanders. A few years after a missionary begins teaching the island’s children, the state catches wind and decides that the islanders are genetically unfit and must be evicted from the island and institutionalized. The missionary tries to “save” one of the islanders, one of Benjamin’s teenage descendants who can pass for white on the mainland, while guiltily advocating for the others despite secretly finding them repulsive.

This is beautifully written and unusual in a lot of ways, individual and collective voices sometimes merging to paint a portrait of this small community. The missionary, Mr. Diamond, feels like an accurate representation of the white saviour figure; he genuinely believes he is helping the islanders, but he also harbours a sense of racial animosity that he tries to suppress, and he is, unavoidably, a bridge to the island for white state power. But the real heart of the novel is the island’s matriarch, Esther Honey, with a long memory and boundless love for her grandchildren. The novel is told in short vignettes, which mostly works for me – this contributes to the kaleidoscopic feel of collective life. I wish it had dug deeper into its themes, though – the discussion of eugenics doesn’t really go anywhere, for example. But I think it’s a commendable choice not to linger in the traumatic moments, to instead focus so much on the care and love these characters have for each other, the richness and joy of their life despite the outsiders’ interpretations.

Should it be on the shortlist? Another one I’m borderline about. I think it’s an impressive novel, but I don’t have the sense that this is my winner. Yes?

Alison’s Take:

On a small island off the coast of Maine, the descendants of Benjamin Honey live peacefully. A refuge for the former slave and his Irish wife, the families living on Apple Island have been there for six generations, welcoming those who stumble across them, their different ancestries mixing together. In the early twentieth century, the families live as they always have – until officials from the mainland decide to do something about it.

This Other Eden is not for you if you don’t like wondering at the end of a hook, there are no answers here. This is a sad story; a happy community forced to leave their home because of racism from the closest town, who didn’t think they should stay there. But Harding focuses on the community and the way they support one another. Their lives have been challenging for years, but they live with joy. The setup for the deportation from Apple Island is driven by the growing popularity of eugenics, which peters out a bit – but again, This Other Eden is a story more extensive than what Harding gives us.

It’s beautifully written, again, seeming to be in line with the less adventurous books I’ve read so far on the Booker longlist: traditional narratives but exquisite writing. I wouldn’t be upset if it was on the shortlist, but again, I wasn’t blown away.

Paul Harding is the author of Tinkers and Enon. He teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook University and lives on Long Island, New York.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (March 7 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 226 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773103121
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773103129

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.

Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.