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

In Harding’s new book – a tale of racism on an isolated island off the coast of Maine – the Pulitzer prize-winning author’s gifts have found their fullest expression

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.

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

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