Eden is a bit of an outlier in my recent history of reading. I’ve immersed myself deeply in historical fiction, British and overseas. Notably, Cecily by Annie Garthwaite; Hamnet and The Marriage Portrait, both by Maggie O’Farrell; Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah; The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed, and all her previous novels. And currently I’m getting through the complete collection to date of Elif Shafak. Plenty of realist fiction there, with familiar or imaginary figures in stories set in a recognisable past world.
And now, I’ve stumbled backwards into quite another country, in the most ancient of historical landscapes, in the earliest of beginnings of humankind. Or so The Bible says.
But Jim Crace’s Eden is not the Eden in The Bible. Thank heavens. Crace takes us into a reimagined version of a fantastical imaginary garden and makes it feel plausible. Yet still incredible, in the truest sense of the word. And somehow he also lifts us up into the realms of suspended disbelief, an area I struggle to navigate so often.
We find ourselves immersed in a secure, enclosed terrain populated with immortal humans who are just not that special. Agriculturalists, horticulturalists, simple peasants. All subordinate to a host of angels who share the patch and transcend it when they are called above by the ultimate power.
Yet even the angels have to suffer indignities and mundanity. Jamin, the guardian of the fishpond, has his plumage preened manually by a human helper who removes bugs and lice from his body. Now, knock me down with a feather, Crace’s angels are glorified birds. Not the angels I am used to (the weeping stone statues in Dr. Who, since you ask). The Eden angels both soar high and tread low. They lead the worship and they punish the disobedient, drawing blood from Alum, their hapless go between. No one likes a snitch.
There are two human misfits. Tabi, the missing rebel, has escaped this earthly prison and is now in the wilderness, living among the mortals. Missed desperately by Ebon, her partner, frequently referred to as her brother, but in this strange, historically incestuous world all relationships are possible.
Tabi and Ebon are following in the footsteps of Adam and Eve, the original sinners long since departed from this fake paradise. Tabi must surely have had her taste of forbidden fruit, as did Eve, but did not tempt her man to do the same. Ebon, beginning his own rebellion, picks his own apple and sinks his teeth into a delight normally reserved for the angels. Peasants are meant to only eat seconds. The very worst fruit, rotten, bug infested mush is thrown in charity to the wild ones beyond the gates.
For those looking for the primordial villain, no snake is mentioned in this Eden. Here all the angels are unfallen, righteous and gliding high. Except for Jamin, who eventually comes crashing down after flying into dangerous skies.
And so we discover an Eden that makes sense. One that easily gets over the essential problem of a world with just one man and one woman (borne from a spare rib) and their offspring. Here, we have many, though none of them procreate. There are no children; they are not needed. The adults – wherever they came from – never age, never change.
No wonder their lives are tedious. So little sense of identity. So much manual labour. The minions suffer their chores and perform mindless routines in growing produce, maintaining the land, toiling endlessly. And all for what? To preserve a monotonous existence that no one questions. Crace is relentless in his description of plants and produce. Trees and crops and seasonal regimes. Grinding away with rustic language, but never in repetition. So many variations. Rhythmical narrative. Brutal rather than bucolic, reflecting the essentially pointless existence of the unwitting servants on the ground.
Mysteriously, Tabi is nowhere to be found. Her escape is increasingly causing ruptures in this closed society. She has sown the seeds of disobedience and fear. Ultimately, the obsession with her disappearance leads to the gates of the garden being breached, and this world, this Eden, will never be the same again.
Eden is a wonderful story. The kind of history I didn’t think I needed. It takes us back to creation and excites us with wonder, but, reassuringly, debunks the myth. Brutally. With scarcely a word about God. We rarely get an insight in to His being, let alone a divine encounter or an exploration into His reasoning. Just an acceptance He is there, somewhere, high above the clouds. And the earth He created was not that great. Not fair. Not a happy place. Just somewhere that was bound to fail.
Eden is, was, a landscape of desolation. Home to a society of corruption and division. That all sounds like quite a modern concept. Problems for our time. But this is ancient and magical, as well as contemporary. The story spirals toward tragedy – spiritual and earthly - only in this painful drama flights of angels come to no-one’s rest except their own.
© Eddie Hewitt 2022