Sampling the Booker Prize Longlist: Awed by Paul Harding’s “This Other Eden” 

The book buyer of my favorite independent bookstore once offered me a job.  I was recommending novels to a friend in a loud, excited voice.  I blush to remember how loud I was, but apparently that was a plus. Two customers stalked up to the desk and bought the book. 

I liked the book buyer, an unrecognized genius.  She spent her days in a dark, chilly basement reading ARCs and drinking cappuccinos. “I don’t read all of these.  I don’t have time.  I read a third of a lot of books, and then decide whether our customers will like them.”  

Her selections were impeccable.  It was the go-to place for books by Rachel Ingalls, Robert Irwin, Don Delillo, Christopher Coe, Marilynne Robinson, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Drabble, Vintage Contemporaries, and The National Book Award and Booker Prize winners.

In retrospect, bookselling would have been my ideal job, if I hadn’t had another job.  Still, I loved chatting to the booksellers.  One of  them was impossibly sophisticated,  wearing sleek black sheaths and lots of gold jewelry, but she and I both adored Dickens, the basis for our friendship.

The book buyer’s one-third rule still influences me. It applies perfectly to a book you cannot admire. My book group loved Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, but I called it quits when the heroine discovered a tribe in South America where 70-year-old women could have babies. (Please, no!) And when I begin crying over a book about climate change and the death or our planet, I allow myself to put it aside till I pull myself together.

In Booker Prize season, the one-third rule is useful.  I tried some years ago to read the complete Booker longlist, but the judges’ taste did not always concur with mine. Now I regard the longlist as a list of recommendations, not as a syllabus.

I got off to a good start this morning with Paul Harding’s Booker-longlisted novel, This Other Eden. This multi-generational novel, with its sculpted sentences  and colorful imagery, must be one of the most brilliant novels of the year. Full of mystical twists and intense lyricism , the book resembles  the hollow tree where one of the main characters, Zachary Hand to God Proverb, a Civil War veteran, lives and carves scenes from  his favorite Bible stories.  “He loved, in order, sculpting robes, vegetation, faces, and most of all, hands, through which he took special joy in expressing despair, support, betrayal, supplication, forgiveness, healing, benediction, blessing, revenge, comfort, and murder, hands raised high, hanging limp, clenched, slack, palms out, extended, turned in, retracted, bathing feet, supporting elbows, wiping tears, tightening nooses, drawing swords, jabbing vinegar sops, thrusting spears, caressing sleeping faces.”

The novel concentrates on the early 20th century (so far anyway), but we learn the stories of the origins of the mixed-race community. Set on Apple Island, Benjamin Honey, an escaped slave, and his Irish wife, Patience, settled there in 1793 after an arduous ship voyage. Honey intended to plant an apple orchard, but when his seeds don’t grow, he does odd jobs as a carpenter on the mainland for farmers who advise him on growing trees and trade seeds. The Honey family flourishes, along with the trees, and soon they have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  There are a few other mixed-race families, too, and all of them have fascinating stories.

Things begin change on Apple Island in the 20th century.  Black people are less welcome on the mainland, and the lighter-skinned are more accepted. Matthew Diamond, a white retired teacher, under the auspices of Enon College of Theology and Mission, builds a one-room schoolhouse on the Island and teaches the children every summer.  He finds a wealth of talent: teemage Ethan Honey is a talented artist, his grandmother, Esther Honey, can recite Hamlet, and one child is a a mathematical genius. (Matthew orders an advanced algebra book so he can keep ahead.)  

Unfortunately, Matthew’s presence on the island attracts the attention of the Governor’s Council, who believe in eugenics and are determined to evict the “degenerate” mixed-race community from the island. 

Harding’s prose is quietly transcendent and lyrical. His storytelling bears the influences of Toni Morrison, Faulkner, and  Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Biblical and classical themes are woven into the narrative: Esther Honey passes on the family flood myth  to the new generarion: in the 19th century, a hurricane and flood crippled and killed many in their family and community. She says, Noah had the ark, we had the island.   

The one-third rule does not apply here. I am wholly committed to reading this book.

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