“This Other Eden” by Paul Harding is a captivating novel that draws inspiration from the true story of Malaga Island, situated off the coast of Maine — a once harmonious and racially integrated community.

In 1792, Benjamin Honey, a formerly enslaved individual, and his Irish wife, Patience, discovered solace on the island, establishing a life together. Fast forward more than a century, and their descendants find themselves ensconced in an eccentric and diverse community.

The inhabitants of Malaga Island include a pair of sisters raising three Penobscot orphans, Theophilus and Candace Larks with their nocturnal brood, a Civil War veteran known for carving Biblical images into a hollow tree.

However, the tranquillity of Malaga Island is disrupted by the intrusion of so-called “civilisation.” Officials, motivated by eugenics, embark on a mission to “cleanse” the island.

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A missionary schoolteacher intervenes, selecting a light-skinned boy for salvation, while the others are left to face the harsh realities of institutionalisation or the uncertain waters in a tragic twist reminiscent of Noah’s Ark.

In “This Other Eden,” Harding skilfully navigates the hopes, dreams, and resilience of those considered different in a world brutally intolerant of diversity.

The novel serves as a poignant reflection on the historical injustice inflicted upon Malaga Island’s racially diverse community, evicted and displaced by local authorities in the early 20th century. Science, cited as a motivation for the eviction, is now recognised as eugenics — a crime masquerading as lawful action.

As the narrative unfolds, the reader is introduced to compelling characters such as Ethan Honey, a descendant of a former slave, whose artistic prowess promises a brighter future.

Unexpected moral reserves

Esther Honey, Ethan’s mother, grapples with a haunted family history and possesses a profound knowledge of all things Shakespearean. The retired White schoolteacher Matthew Diamond, initially oblivious to the catastrophic consequences of his presence, discovers unexpected moral reserves.

Harding, in his exploration of different characters, delves into the interconnectedness of various coastal communities, using this fictionalised history to comment on the ephemeral qualities often lost when viewing historical events from a distance.

The novel’s brevity is deceptive, as it carries the weight of history through Harding’s lyrical prose and evocative imagery.

One memorable scene features Ethan painting with vivid strokes, capturing the essence of the island’s beauty: “Put the haystacks in the sky, bristling and sharp, rasping across the lowering blue.”

The book provides a profound and moving account of community and displacement, inviting readers to contemplate the enduring impact of history on the fabric of society.

“This Other Eden” is not just a historical novel; it is a lyrical exploration of resilience, loss, and the complexities of the human experience.

Ahmad Nazir is a UAE based freelance writer