With only two books to his name, Paul Harding’s literary career is already one of spectacular highs and lows. Rejected by several of the major publishing houses, his first novel, Tinkers, languished in a drawer before eventually finding a backer in a small non-profit press. A year later, in 2010, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Tinkers took the reader into the mind of an old, dying clockmaker, George Washington Crosby, interweaving present and past in an exquisite exploration of family and identity. In Enon, his second novel, Harding picks up the story of the Crosby family two generations on with George’s grandson, Charlie. The two novels have much in common – an acute feel for place and time, an ability to inhabit the layered consciousness of his characters – but the stylistic weaknesses of the earlier novel have gone. In Enon, Harding rises still more triumphantly to the challenge: of delineating the precise contours of physical and mental anguish.
Enon is the name of the small town in Massachusetts where Charles Washington Crosby lives with his wife and daughter, scratching together an income as a gardener and decorator. His pleasures are as modest as his means: a cold beer on a hot summer’s night, clearing the yard of fallen leaves each autumn, feeding the wild birds in the woods near his home. But when his 13-year-old daughter, Kate, is killed in a bike accident, Charlie’s life falls apart. His wife leaves him and he rapidly spirals into a drink- and drug-fuelled torpor.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like the basis for a pretty depressing novel. But Enon is the very opposite of depressing. An unflinching account of the savage pain of loss, yes, but also a deeply moving portrayal of human resilience, this is a novel about death and mortality that goes to the heart of the “awful miracle” of life and living.
In the weeks after Kate’s death, Charlie abandons any attempt to care for himself and courts oblivion. Yet life persists, in all its mundanity and splendour. The sun rises, birds sing, well-meaning neighbours come by with home-baked lasagne, local teenagers giggle and gossip and smoke their illicit cigarettes. Like King Lear, Charlie grapples with the appalling conundrum: how can all these have life and his adored daughter no breath at all? Unlike Lear, Charlie is not released from his agony, but must somehow find a way through it.
Harding conveys both the physical world of Enon and the physicality of grief in prose of hypnotic beauty. Long, sinuous sentences move seamlessly from descriptions of actions and objects to thoughts, memories, hallucinatory imaginings. The stars on a freezing December night seem to Charlie to come “from the deepest trenches of space, from terrible unimaginable beginnings, their light democratized by the present moment, but in fact a vast, tangled thicket of times, of ghosted universes haunting the hillside with their artifacted light”. The corporeal realm is as inescapable as the emotional purgatory of loss; the two are inextricable. “Memories of her feeding the birds and practicing running and playing cribbage were not enough,” Charlie realises at one point, “I was ravenous for my child.”
Charlie wanders the fields, woods and swamps around Enon, recalling moments from his daughter’s life, and from his own childhood, in particular memories of working alongside his clockmaker grandfather, George, who becomes a kind of touchstone for a life of quiet decency and integrity. Night after night Charlie finds himself in the cemetery where all his family are now buried. A living ghost, he haunts and is haunted by the present and the past, resurrecting the real and mythic souls that inhabit the town. At one point he imagines Kate arriving in Enon with the early pilgrim settlers and meeting another of the town’s spectres, Sarah Good, hanged as a witch in 1692. As the boundaries between reality and fantasy increasingly dissolve, Charlie’s own wanderings take on a dreamlike quality: a modern-day Orpheus, he is continually compelled to follow his daughter “into the country of the dead in order to fetch her back”.
Harding is an extraordinary writer, for the intoxicating power of his prose, the range of his imagination, and above all for the redemptive humanity of his vision. With painstaking brilliance, Enon charts one man’s attempt to salvage meaning from meaningless tragedy, to endure the ubiquitous presence of a loved one’s absence. A superb account of the banality and uniqueness of bereavement, it more than earns its place alongside such non-fictional classics as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed. That Enon is a work of fiction that feels authentic as memoir makes it all the more astonishing.
Rebecca Abrams is the author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)