This Other Eden by Paul Harding review – a novel that impresses time and again

Halfway through Paul Harding’s new novel, This Other Eden, a reporter, a photographer, two doctors and three local councillors visit an isolated island somewhere along the coast of Maine. They have travelled there as part of an official survey committee and are being escorted by a white missionary teacher, Matthew Diamond, who wants to teach Latin and Shakespeare to the island’s racially diverse residents but also feels a “visceral, involuntary repulsion… in the presence of a living Negro”. The story is set in the early-20th century US, when anti-black prejudices were frequently mistaken for scientific truths, and the two doctors in the surveying group could brazenly become members of the “Section on Eugenics in the American Breeders’ Association”. The doctors go about measuring every inch of the islanders’ breathing bodies with calipers and metal rulers, as if they were mere lab specimens. At one point, someone in the group shows a little black girl photographs of a train engine, a telephone, the then American president William Taft, and asks her to identify the images. Despite his racist views, Diamond is upset by the impertinence of the committee and nearly ends up telling them that the little girl “could answer your questions in Latin”.

Harding’s novels are rife with such carefully calibrated moments, when a character briefly transcends their desires and deficiencies, when a sentence lays them bare as hauntingly human. In Tinkers, his Pulitzer prize-winning debut, an old man wonders if, decades after his death, he will be “no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumours” to his descendants. In Enon, a grieving father spends so many nights awake beside his daughter’s grave that he starts to doubt if the cemetery and the adjoining hills are real or a “large, elaborate set”. I can’t help thinking, however, that Harding’s gifts have found their fullest expression in This Other Eden. Pick any excerpt from these 200 pages and you will find that each sentence contains multitudes and works well by itself, and yet the chapters, the paragraphs, have also been sewn together into a numinous whole.

The story opens on Apple Island, named because of the trees once planted there by the first settlers: a runaway slave, Benjamin Honey, and his Irish wife, Patience. A hundred years later, their descendants and a couple of neighbouring families get by on scraps of food and tobacco from the mainland and drink “mulchy black tea to nip morning, noon and suppertime pangs”. The governor of Maine resolves to evict them from their inherited land, apparently for the sake of “humanity and public health”. The children, Diamond’s pupils, will end up scattered across the country, either institutionalised or dead.

The story sometimes feels peripheral to the characters’ sublime powers of attention, their propensity to be at home in the natural world

But this tragic outline, albeit inspired by true events, does not quite capture the novel’s ambition. Harding is not striving for historical credibility but something more poetic, more fragmentary: what it was like being alive on the island, moment after moment. His New England characters are refreshingly attuned to half-apprehended things – what the poet Emily Dickinson once summed up as the condition of “not precisely knowing and not precisely knowing not”. There is Esther Honey, the long-suffering matriarch, who spends her days smoking mugwort on her rocking chair and quelling morbid thoughts about her monstrous late father. Zachary Hand to God Proverbs is a carpenter who lives in the trunk of a hollow oak tree. He has spent decades carving scenes from the Bible inside the tree, once aspiring to build an “otherworldly cathedral”, but lately he dreads the idea of ever completing the task. Theophilus and Candace Lark live in a shack next to the Honeys. Their children are so weak and sensitive to sunlight that they can only venture out in the dark.

Harding withholds judgment on the enablers and victims of the island’s tragedy. The court clerk who delivers eviction notices to the islanders might think of them as “degenerate squatters”, but later we also see him with his wife and daughter, with barely a roof over their heads, his job being probably the reason they aren’t squatters themselves.

The plot eventually circles back to both Tinkers and Enon. Ethan Honey – Esther’s grandson and a painting prodigy – ends up in Enon, the town at the centre of the previous novels. And yet the story sometimes feels peripheral to the characters’ sublime powers of attention, their propensity to be at home in the natural world. Ethan, for instance, doesn’t brood as much on his skin being noticeably paler than the rest of his family as on the “breathless angelic light” of summer afternoons on the east coast. His father struggles to articulate his feelings, but there are ample moments on Apple Island when we witness how the “night became his mind and his mind the night”. The devastation of a hurricane is described, at one point, as a “sealed message unsealing”. When a pine tree is chopped up for wood inside a dense forest, one character is briefly overcome by “the shock of the concussion of tree striking earth”. The novel impresses time and again because of the depth of Harding’s sentences, their breathless angelic light.

  • This Other Eden by Paul Harding is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply