In his spellbinding third novel, Paul Harding celebrates the hopes, dreams and resilience of those deemed not to fit in a world brutally intolerant of difference

Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading. 

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published


Inspired by historical events, This Other Eden tells the story of Apple Island: an enclave off the coast of the United States where castaways – in flight from society and its judgment – have landed and built a home.  

In 1792, formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey arrives on the island with his Irish wife, Patience, to make a life together there. More than a century later, the Honeys’ descendants remain, alongside an eccentric, diverse band of neighbours.  

Then comes the intrusion of ‘civilization’: officials determine to ‘cleanse’ the island. A missionary schoolteacher selects one light-skinned boy to save. The rest will succumb to the authorities’ institutions – or cast themselves on the waters in a new Noah’s Ark…

The main characters

Benjamin Honey

Benjamin Honey fled enslavement in the late 1700s, and together with his wife Patience, settled on a small patch of land just off the coast of Maine. Benjamin carried seeds with him, and, through dogged determination, grew an orchard there on the island. Many of the islanders are descendants of Benjamin and Patience. 

Zachary Hand to God Proverbs

Zachary is a refugee from the American Civil War and spends most of his time carving elaborate biblical images on the inside of a hollowed-out oak tree on Apple Island. He is a skilled carpenter. 

Matthew Diamond

Matthew Diamond is a retired schoolteacher and devout Christian. He journeys to Apple Island as a missionary, to spread the work of God while attempting to ‘educate’ the local children. 

Ethan Honey

Ethan Honey comes from a Black family, yet his fair skin means he passes as white. Ethan has a natural artistic flair and is a talented painter. Matthew Diamond takes it upon himself to ‘save’ Ethan from the fate of the island and arranges for him to be sent to an estate of a friend, Mr Hale, where he can have refuge and spend the summer painting.

This Other Eden by Paul Harding

About the author

Paul Harding attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he studied English, and has taught writing at Harvard University and the University of Iowa.

This Other Eden, shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, is Harding’s third novel. His debut novel Tinkers, was published in 2009 and won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2010 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, among other honours. He published his second novel, Enon, in 2013.  

He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently director of the MFA in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook University. He lives on Long Island, New York, with his family. 

Paul Harding

What the Booker Prize 2023 judges said

This Other Eden powerfully reimagines a little-known chapter in American history: the heartbreaking fate in the early 20th century of the mixed-race descendants of a former slave, Benjamin Honey, and his Irish wife, Patience, who had settled on a small island off the coast of Maine in the 1790s. 

‘Though set in the past, it’s impossible to ignore the novel’s contemporary resonance, especially in its exploration of how those in power, convinced of their righteousness, abuse others whose identities and way of life don’t conform to their own.’

Booker Prize judges 2023

What the critics said

Danez Smith, The New York Times

‘Harding’s prose is mesmerizing. As Esther tells the tale of the flood that once consumed the island, the novel flashes to her ancestor Patience’s perspective: “I could no longer hold my breath. Just as I had to give out and inhale the Atlantic into my lungs and swallow it into my guts like a last meal of seawater soup, the whirlpool began to uncoil from around my hand and the flag and the water began to lower.” As the account switches from third-person telling to first-person memory, Black descendant and Irish ancestor meet, Patience’s voice transforms into Esther’s own, and their stories become one in dazzling fashion. Whatever apprehensions I had were outweighed by Harding’s powerful music.’

Wendy Smith, The Washington Post

‘Based on the history of an actual Maine island, “This Other Eden” tells a tragic story. But Harding’s finely wrought prose shows us a community that refuses to see itself through the judgmental eyes of others, a society composed of people who give their neighbors the same latitude to go their own way that they claim for themselves. It closes on a note of determined hope, with an emblem of continuity and endurance held high above the waters that separate Apple Island from the censorious mainland.’

Susie Mesure, The Spectator

‘Yet Harding writes with the virtuosity of an orchestra conductor, mixing sentences of vastly varying lengths in the way a maestro brings in different sections of his ensemble. The effect can be dizzying: when Esther describes a hurricane that struck in 1815, the prose is furious with the storm’s kinetic energy. If at times he is guilty of overwriting, he is always a delight to read.’

Maureen Corrigan, NPR

‘You could imagine lots of ways a historical novel about this horror might be written, but none of them would give you a sense of the strange spell of This Other Eden — its dynamism, bravado and melancholy. Harding’s style has been called “Faulknerian” and maybe that’s apt, given his penchant for sometimes paragraph-long sentences that collapse past and present.’

Rachel Seiffert, The Guardian

‘Told in third person, but inhabiting multiple and often competing viewpoints, This Other Eden takes us inside Esther’s defiant penury, Zachary’s visions, Diamond’s “skewed, inexcusable heart”. Whether islander or mainlander, child or adult, each voice is wonderfully clear and distinct.

‘Harding’s use of time is equally deft. The three parts of the novel jump through time, from the opening among the island families, to Ethan’s new life on the mainland, and then back again, exploring the consequences of Diamond’s intervention not just for the boy, but for the whole island. Harding’s lightness of touch is masterful.’

Harding’s finely wrought prose shows us a community that refuses to see itself through the judgmental eyes of others, a society composed of people who give their neighbors the same latitude to go their own way that they claim for themselves

What Paul Harding said

‘I was reading about labor unions in the US after the American Civil War, which were some of the first institutions in the country to advocate for things like civil rights and women’s suffrage and so forth, and it occurred to me that there must have been all-Black and racially integrated communities at the time. I did a quick search online and, of course, there were so many of them, all around the country. Malaga Island caught my eye at first because it was in the state of Maine, where my mother’s family was from and where my first novel, Tinkers, is set. When the people there were evicted, one family was committed to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, which served as the source for an asylum that plays a part in the plot of Tinkers. Then I discovered that almost to the week that the community was dismantled, in the summer of 1912, the first international congress was taking place in London. Those three elements and the photographs of the residents that I saw in the three or four articles I found about the story sort of spontaneously constellated in my imagination and began to haunt me.’

Read Paul Harding’s full interview here.

Paul Harding

Questions and discussion points

Paul Harding’s writing style throughout This Other Eden is lyrical, imbued with a poetic sensibility. There is often a considered and deliberate cadence. ‘As he lowered into sleep the salty pined breeze and cricket songs and schools of stars poured into and birled around his brains so the night became his mind and his mind the night and the mother owl watching over him swooped down from her tree and through his dreams.’ (Page 102). Discuss the effect the poetry of the novel has, and what it adds to the reading experience.

The novel is written in third person with the narrative often quickly switching viewpoints to first-person when it serves the story. Why has Paul Harding chosen to write in this manner? Does this narrative technique offer a broader range of perspectives from the collective inhabitants of Apple Island?

The inhabitants of Apple Island live offbeat lives, when compared to those who live on the mainland. Yet Harding humanises them and writes them humbly. These characters are crafted with nuance, without opinion or judgment. What impact does this have within the novel and what sense does it evoke for you as the reader?

There are many biblical references throughout This Other Eden. ‘She knew how holy it was that only one family went into the ark and came forth from it. And she knew how terrible it was, too.’ (Page 208). Why do you think Harding has chosen to use such iconography throughout the novel?

The story of This Other Eden is based on the real-life events of Malaga Island, whose residents were forcibly removed in 1912. Paul Harding used this as inspiration, but then worked his own narrative around this. ‘I immediately set about getting an imagined version of the events and, more importantly, the characters up and running, in which I’d be free to shape the story in the context of different literary traditions that resonated with what seem like the universal human experiences of displacement, marginalization, exile, and so forth,’ he told the Booker Prizes website. Where do you see fact and fiction intersecting in the novel? 

Matthew Diamond, a white missionary and school teacher comes to the island to teach and spread Christianity to the islanders. His religious ideals tell him that ‘all men are brothers, all women his sisters’, yet he wrestles with his own morality, feeling a ‘visceral, involuntary repulsion in the presence of a living Negro’. Discuss Matthew’s white-saviour-like role in the novel and how complicit he is in the destruction of Apple Island. Could Matthew be considered a white supremacist?

The state of Maine sends a committee to study and analyse the people of Apple Island, two of whom are doctors ‘with a particular interest in subjects deteriorated by inbreeding’. The doctors are members of the American Breeders’ Association, a real-life group that peddled pseudo-science under the guise of eugenics. To what extent do you think This Other Eden is intended as a cautionary tale to present-day attitudes and racism? 

The governor of Maine resolves to evict the inhabitants of the island from their inherited land, for the sake of ‘humanity and public health’. Discuss the parallels between the treatment of those on Apple Island and colonialist events in contemporary history. What countries and communities do you see the author drawing inspiration from?

Ethan Honey, the lightest-skinned member of the Honey family, is sent to study art on a mainland estate. Here, he meets an Irish maid called Bridget with whom he enters into a relationship. But everything changes when Bridget chances upon a photograph of Ethan with his family. ‘How can he be from a colored family if he is a white boy?’ (Page 148) Discuss Bridget’s confusion and change of heart with regard to racism in the United States. Why does this new knowledge change her feelings towards him? 

The residents of Apple Island created a society that was tolerant and without prejudice. They lived an often harsh life, but they endured. Could they have survived without intervention? And could they ever have been accepted simply for who they were? 

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