The White Spaces Between the Words
What a weird, strange, twisted and beautiful novel.
A dissonant cacophony of perversions and love, of generations-spanning actions, reactions and consequences, bared to the bone, a god’s honest look at our United States of America society and suffering that we’ve created whether we like it or not, and a masterfully told tale, artfully written, nodding to Faulkner with paragraph-long sentences, twists and turns, paralleling our humanity or, at times, the lack thereof, enlarged, perverted, reflected through the sharp bloody shards of a cracked mirror. Paul Harding’s This Other Eden is not spun up out of whole cloth. The Pulitzer Prize winning author of both Tinkers and Enon bases his latest tale on the early 20th-century fate of the residents of Malaga Island off the coast of Maine.
This Other Eden
By Paul Harding
W.W. Norton & Company
The novel begins with a direct quote from a present-day Maine Coast Heritage Trust flyer, “Malaga Island…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.” The governor of Maine at the time was quoted as saying, “I think the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all of their filth.” Before a word of fiction is written in This Other Eden, Harding rings a bell to tell us that his tale of this island is not at all far from the truth but perhaps a reimagining of the lives destroyed and the consequences of hate.
The story begins with Benjamin Honey, “American, Bantu, Igbo—born enslaved,” arriving on the island with his wife Patience, “nee Rafferty, Galway girl,” with several pouches of varieties of apple seeds. He eventually plants an orchard. The small strip of land floating a few hundred feet off the coast of Maine becomes Apple Island. “He inhaled the perfume, salted, as everything on the island, and took a bite of the apple he held.”
The prose is sublime, expressive and masterful, just the right touch of sparkle to illuminate a character or scene while at the same time, and this is truly quite complex to successfully pull off, creating genuine desire that no harm come to the Honeys, Proverbs and Larks at the center of this story. Harding, as we hold our collective breath, refuses to be genteel in this narrative menagerie of grotesqueries, incest, phrenology and patricide, creating scenes that we, on the one hand, want to believe could never happen but know, in real life, did.
A benefactor recognizes artistic talent in the young Ethan Honey and arranges for him to attend an art college on the mainland. He stays with the wealthy Thomas Hale and meets Bridget, the young Irish servant. Soon after arriving, Ethan is in a field drawing, and Bridget brings him a cool beverage, “Lemonade, and ice through the summer, a house bigger than twenty houses, Dutchmen rolling huge, rolling meadows, this girl from over the ocean, so lovely, so kind to him, this dream, this strange dream, this huge, addled dream of a kingdom so far from Apple Island.” To Ethan, the mainland, our society of a century ago, was “addled” and “strange.” It’s all about one’s perspective.
This section of This Other Eden approaches the lyricism and import of the Time Passes middle section in Virginia Woolf’s canonical To the Lighthouse. She uses the fluidity of time and the surreal beauty of our natural surroundings to advance the story across many years in a brief 20 pages. Harding does the same in the recounting of the young love of Ethan Honey and Bridget as a bridge between the early days of Apple Island and its savage denouement in the early 20th century.
If there is a slight weakness in the novel, it is, in my opinion, the heavy-handedness of the biblical metaphors in the first third of the story. The Proverbs family are among the early settlers on the island, and a descendent, Zachary Hand to God Proverbs, a carpenter, spends his time inside a large hollow oak tree, “pondering the meaning of creation, the meaning of his and his fellow islanders’ mean existences, and carving scenes from the Bible into the insides of the tree.” There was also a flood “way back in 1815” decimating the island and carrying several away, a story that 100 years later Gram is asked to retell. These are just a few examples that I believe have the effect of weighing down the narrative flow. It is too much seasoning for an otherwise fine stew.
Because Harding never, not once, tells us what to think or how to process this story, the silences are insightfully eloquent. He imposes no order or justification but moves us to ponder for it in the liminal white spaces between the words.