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Booker Prize 2023 - This Other Eden by Paul Harding

I am sad to report that this was quite a disappointing read for me. Not because it was bad but I had such high expectations and it just fell flat for me. On paper, this is everything I want in a book: skilful, lyrical prose, a historical novel that teaches me about a time and place that interest me, a firm critique of unjust events, a slightly odd but intriguing cast of characters. But it failed to move me and being moved by a story this heart-breaking should be an easy feat.

Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding takes us to a tiny Island off the coast of Maine – an island constantly threatened with instant eradication by drowning as the history of its inhabitants, passed through the generations since 1792 shows. When former slave Benjamin Honey brought his Irish wife Patience to the small speck of land in the sea they were to make their home a struggle of man versus nature and man versus man began. And it continues more than a century later for the few remaining inhabitants of what was supposed to be Honey’s apple orchard paradise before all apples drowned in a magnificent flood that would have impressed Noah.

Now, though, the threat of the rising waters in secondary to that posed by those who cross it. With the spread of Darwinist ideas in a fundamentally racist society eugenic policies are on the rise and even the ocean cannot keep them off the island’s shores. Representatives of mainland civilisation (in their words) arrive with their strange words and stranger instruments and begin to measure and assess the island’s inhabitants, checking them against a long list of characteristics that should be eradicated, and ideally alongside those who exhibit them. The missionary teacher Matthew Diamond, who knows of the hidden talents of the island’s children better than anyone selects one boy to save from the careless disposal of “Undesirable” human beings the state officials have in mind. Impressed by Ethan Honey’s artistic talents and optimistic that, light-skinned as he is, the boy might pass as white, Diamond sends the teenager off to stay with a wealthy friend and paint while his family is about to lose everything.

Harding’s writing is lyrical and carefully crafted – perhaps too much so? He says all the right words to convey tenderness and empathy without holding back his rage but the words did not fully reach me, they weren’t enough to let me feel what his protagonists were feeling. Perhaps the image-heavy language didn’t help. His metaphors stood between me and the brutality of what was happening and his style failed to engage or excite me. The same is true for his characters, all of which are diligently chiselled in astonishing and often disarming detail, but they never truly came alive for me. This might be a case of Booker standards. I might have been able to appreciate this novel more, had I not read it in immediate comparison to the other titles on the longlist and with the knowledge in mind that this prize seeks to reward outstanding literary fiction. Elsewhere, This Other Eden has earned stealler reviews, so I encourage everyone interested to give it a go. I am tempted to say I will return to this and give it a second chance at a different time, but frankly, seeing all those unread books on my shelves I cannot see why I would wish to pick this up again when there is so much else still to read.

Published 2023 by Hutchinson Heinemann

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