This Other Eden by Paul Harding

First off – the writing in this book is fantastic. Each sentence is concise and descriptive at the same time and it needs to be because there is a lot of story to tell in just over 200 pages. Some of the sentences are very, very long but for very good reasons, which I will come to later on.

Based loosely on a true story in Maine, a group of people, mixed in race and therefore colour, lived on a small island off the Maine coast called Apple Island (in real life Malaga Island) where a Black man and White woman settled and raised a family. This family grew, there were additions to the island, but not many, and there they lived in abject poverty financially, but free of all ideas around in the early 1900s about what colour meant and how they should live their lives. In the summer a teacher/preacher, Matthew Diamond, would row over every day and teach the children and preach on a sunday. Matthew was a strange mix of a man: he taught the children and grew to realise the incredible talents in the Honey family yet felt a ‘visceral, involuntary repulsion in the presence of a living Negro’.

Diamond’s activities draw the attention of state officials and they visit the island. Unfortunately, two of the members of the group are part of the ‘Eugenics in the American Breeding Society’ and so bodies are measured as if they are cattle and pronounced ‘morons’ or ‘degenerate squatters’. Diamond wants to speak up and say that one of the children has outstripped him in her learning about algebra, another can speak in Latin and the third, a boy, can draw exceptionally well. But, and it is a big but, he doesn’t. His guilt gets the better of him and he asks a friend to take in Ethan, the boy who can draw, so that he can escape the island. Esther, the grandmother, knows he is the only one who is given an opportunity because he passes for white and that they will never see him again. The rest of the family are Black.

The story is an exercise in the misuse of science – children and adults ended up in the School for the Feeble-Minded and died not long after, and also the part racism plays in how we treat people who are different to ourselves. History has a habit of repeating itself with the idea that those who are in power, who are convinced of their rightness, abuse those whose identity or whose way of life doesn’t conform to their own. We had an example last week which is scarily close to the book when Suella Braverman stated that being homeless was a ‘life choice’ and that she was going to ban charities from giving out tents. Way too close to the story.

There is little in the plot that is a surprise to the reader: the fact that Ethan was from a Black family was telegraphed by the mention of his full lips and the ramifications of this identifying and the ending is no shock. For me, it is the writing that carries this story. The island gathered together to send Ethan off with one last meal and one incredible sentence.

The islanders feasted on lobsters, the tenderest they had ever had, they all agreed, drenched in the melted fresh butter, bowls and bowls of the chowder, the creamiest and richest they’d ever had they all said, fresh bread, with the crustiest crust and the softest insides anyone had ever eaten, broken in chunks from the loaves, slathered, too, in the fresh butter, oysters, the coldest and briniest and most succulent ever, everyone shouted in between sucking them from their shells, corn that everyone agreed was the sweetest they’d ever tasted as they munched their way along and around ear after buttered ear, the darkest, muskiest, most mysterious and beguiling truffles ever to have sprouted, and the sweetest, plumpest, freshes berries anyone had ever tasted, they said, popping one after another down, or cramming handfuls at a time into their mouths, as the children and Annie Parker did. And the beer. Glorious, they all said.


Yes , a child leaving the island was truly Eden collapsing and the loss of innocence for the child. Nowadays, the food sounds luxurious – how could people who live in such poverty and who often went hungry, have had so much? Well, most of it was foraged and were local foods that they lived on when they could get them. The only additions that were bought were the butter and cream. They knew this was a turning point and so in trying to believe that they were doing the right thing, everything took on a slightly romantic glaze. It is the only time in the book anything does. I love the contrast of the short sentence about the beer, almost as if we have to come up for breath after eating all that food to take a slug.

The next morning Ethan uses a small mirror and sketches a portrait of himself, only to discover he is a child, not the man the thought he was. He had been smoking roll-ups since he was twelve years old. And in that moment, your heart breaks and you know no good will come of it.

Interspersed with the prose are documents from state officials about the people and the island which in the third section morph into information about Ethan’s paintings which are on display with the collective guilt of what was done to the people on the island and at the very start of the book, an apology for their treatment. We are left with the question about how history will treat us.

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