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What happened on Malaga Island? | Review of Booker-shortlisted ‘This Other Eden’ by Paul Harding

Harding’s novel on a slice of American history benefits from a thematic invocation of the Bible and Homeric epics

October 26, 2023 01:18 pm | Updated 04:24 pm IST

Descendants of the former residents of Malaga Island at a 2017 ceremony in Maine, U.S., to dedicate a monument in honour of the island’s ousted community.

Descendants of the former residents of Malaga Island at a 2017 ceremony in Maine, U.S., to dedicate a monument in honour of the island’s ousted community. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Paul Harding’s novel This Other Eden echoes the Bible in ways that are as ominous as they are beautiful. Not only does the Eden of this tale evoke the precarious prelapsarian paradise, the eugenic engineering that plays with the mixed-race community on the island invokes the apocalyptic selection made by Noah for his world-saving ark.

But the thematic invocation of Old and New Testament stories is only a partial description of the novel’s aesthetic. Torn between beauty and ethics by several passages of the novel, I couldn’t help recalling the other great tradition of western realism that forms a pointed contrast to the Biblical austerity of narration: the erotic and polyphonic tradition of the Homeric epics.

This, for me, was one of the greatest triumphs of Harding’s novel — the delicate ability to touch and hold contrasting worldviews. This was German philologist Eric Auerbach’s radical claim — that western realism traces its ancestry from two oppositional models: the abstract commandment of narration enshrined in the Bible, and the erotic, playful polytheism of The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Colourful characters

The Atlantic island of Malaga, fictionalised as Apple Island in the novel, plays home to a mixed-race fishing community till their eviction in 1912 by the state, driven by the toxic design of eugenics. If their fate is Biblical, the texture of their atmosphere and the doomed rhythm of their days are strangely Homeric. The bareness of their lives invites the homespun lyricism of a religious question: “What lack ye, Mr. Diamond? What lack ye, Eha Honey?... What lack ye, my little salted cods? What lack ye, my little oysters?

Charmane Glass-Tripp, a descendant of the residents forced off Malaga Island in Maine, U.S., in 1912, gets emotional at a 2017 ceremony to dedicate a monument to the island’s former community.

Charmane Glass-Tripp, a descendant of the residents forced off Malaga Island in Maine, U.S., in 1912, gets emotional at a 2017 ceremony to dedicate a monument to the island’s former community. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Author Paul Harding

Author Paul Harding

But these are characters whose practice is no less mischievous and colourful than the Greek goddesses and demi-goddesses: “The women’s teeth were stained from the tea and smoke but otherwise strong and straight except for an impressive gap between Violet’s top front teeth, through which she could launch a jet of tea and hit a dog in the ear from ten feet, to the glee of the island children.” The quickfire visuality of such character-sketches draws out the sinews of fiction to float along the workings of painting and cinema. But this is a unique milieu where characters are not only individuals but also make a community and even the pulse of a neighbourhood, such as in the making of Zachary: “He let them fidget and juffle a while then opened one fierce bug-eye, slowly, and glared, which made them scream.”

The polyphonic fatality of this language pervades the most crucial trajectories of the narrative, which is the design of the mainstream white society on this isolated mix of Irish and African blood. The key character here is that of Matthew Diamond, the white missionary and schoolteacher, whose dedicated work for the education of the island’s children is not separable from his revulsion of the mixed-race people. In the eyes of Esther Honey, “He was not innocent in the sense of being blameless, but in the sense of being oblivious to the greater, probably utter, catastrophe into which the, yes, artless graciousness of bringing the school and lessons would draw them all.”

Shocking romance

The well-meaning cruelty of white society does not cast the mixed-race community of Apple Island in any romance of innocence or beauty; there too, a brutal savagery runs amok: “And he couldn’t count all the atrocious old men who’d mauled and molested and murdered their own sons and daughters with their bare hands and practically skewered their young dead bodies and roasted them on pits and eaten them headfirst, like backwoods Saturns, and tossed the bones into the dirt for the dogs to gnaw, licking their own children’s grease from their fingers, glutted and serene, then lain down and fallen into the gentlest, most peaceful of sleeps.”

Romance arrives in the novel as an equivocator between races and nurses the unveiling of a reality that has the sharpest potential to shock and tear apart one’s world. Soon after the white Bridget starts to develop tender feelings for Ethan Honey, the boy from Apple Island pale enough to pass as white, the discovery of his photos with people who are obviously “colored” threatens to rock her universe. “How can these people be Ethan’s family?... How can he be from a colored family if he is a white boy?” But such is the unsettling history of Apple Island that goes back... years: “Black ewes birth white lambs and white black and Ethan Honey is colored.”

That is where the novel returns to its Biblical dimension again, bewildering the racial prejudices that have tried to harness the various colour myths in the holy testament. “There was white Negroes and colored white people. Some of them were gray. Some of them pink, like they were raw or something. And some of them were yellow, like waxy cracked old piano keys.” Such is how the marginal, tossed-around community of Apple Island becomes the metaphor of a hopeful rainbow nation of the future.

This Other Eden
Paul Harding
Hutchinson Heinemann

The reviewer’s novels include ‘The Firebird’, ‘The Scent of God’, and ‘The Middle Finger’. @_saikatmajumdar 

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