The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey: A study of a marriage

Cover imageI’m a great fan of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s writing and was delighted when The Narrow Land turned up. It’s been quite some time since The Lives of Women and I’d wondered if there was a new one from her in the offing. This beautifully jacketed book, adorned with Edward Hopper’s ‘Sea Watchers’, spans the summer of 1950, one of many he spent with his wife, Josephine, at their Cape Cod summer home. Dwyer’s novel explores the marriage between these two artists – one acclaimed, the other not.

Jo Hopper is both fiercely possessive of her husband and resentful of the attention he attracts. Her own work is overlooked, despite her many protestations that she is also an artist, her attempts to secure an exhibition frustrated. Her waspish outspokenness and inability to bite her tongue have won her a reputation yet she longs to be accepted. Into this walks ten-year-old Michael, a German war orphan rescued by the charity set up by the Kaplans, the Hoppers’ neighbours. Traumatised by the war, Michael is not quite the summer companion Mrs Kaplan had envisaged for her grandson, spending much of his time on his own until he meets Jo with whom he forms an unlikely connection. When they’re invited to the Kaplans’ annual Labor Day party, Jo is both eager at the prospect of having an audience to impress and reluctant to be seen as simply a wife rather than an artist in her own right. The taciturn Edward has his own reasons for attending having spied a possible muse in Katherine Kaplan after a summer of straining for an image that will form the centre of his next work.

Hickey’s novel is such a pleasingly nuanced piece of writing. It would have been easy simply to focus on Edward Hopper but Hickey chooses to explore the character of his wife from whose perspective a great deal of the narrative is delivered. Jo’s waspish tirades, which occasionally degenerate into physical fighting, leave her incapable of kind words or displaying the affection she feels but her connection with Michael reveals another side to her, curious and engaging. The Hoppers may be centre stage, but Michael is the quiet star of the show, his plight explored with sensitivity and compassion. The well-meaning Kaplans, suffering their own wartime losses, offer hospitality to this child who has witnessed what to them is unimaginable, yet fail to understand what he’s been through and how that might affect his behaviour. All of this is couched in Hickey’s subtle yet precise writing, unshowy and often appropriately painterly:

The zest of summer still on the air, the roadsides plush with wildflowers that don’t yet know their days are numbered

He never even raised his hand to comfort his slapped ear

Some of these days he can hardly remember. They seemed to have slipped through the cracks in the floorboards as soon as he got out of bedCape Cod Morning, 1950 Edward Hopper

Hickey’s novel ends with Edward Hopper finding his long sought inspiration in an unexpected place, resulting in ‘Cape Cod Morning, 1950’.

Reading The Narrow Land brought to mind Esther Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, which also sees a young boy striking up a friendship with two artists married to each other – Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh whose work met with the acclaim that Hickey’s Jo Hopper so desperately craved.

27 thoughts on “The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey: A study of a marriage”

  1. I hadn’t heard of Hickey but was drawn to this first by the cover and then by the description. I’ve now requested a copy on the strength of your review, especially because I also enjoyed Mr Mac and Me.

    If you do read The Age of Light, I think you’ll find it quite similar in its focus on two artists, one of whom (the woman, of course) often had her work ignored and was demoted to the role of muse, and in the ‘painterly’ language.

    1. So pleased to hear that, Rebecca. The jacket is gorgeous, isn’t it. It’s such a delight when publishers get that right. Age of Light is on my list. I’m looking forward to it.

  2. I remember you mentioning this in one of your previews, Susan. It does sound very good, and the period setting definitely appeals. I like the idea of focusing on Hopper’s wife, Jo, a very interesting angle on the story.

    1. Yes, telling it from Jo’s perspective definitely marks it out. I’m sure it would have been much easier to have mined Hopper’s biographical information but it would have been a less interesting novel.

  3. I love Hopper’s work so rather fascinated by this novel, having it told from the perspective of Jo appeals. I read one other novel by Christine Dwyer Hickey several years ago; Last Train from Liguria, which I really enjoyed.

  4. This really appeals to me. It reminds me a little of “Late Breaking” in that reading the stories inspired by Alex Colville led me to read all about Colville himself, and his wife, and how she can be found in so many of his paintings. It’s fascinating!
    Also, thanks to this post, I’ve just discovered that he’s the painter behind the cover of Lauren B. Davis’s book The Empty Room (which I love!).

    1. This would make a great choice for your Literary Wives reading group, Naomi. I remember reading your review of Late Breaking and asking you if you’d looked at the paintings as you read the stories.

  5. The review tempts me. But there is to me something parasitic about novels whose leading character or characters are real people — and I think inherently dubiousand exploitative. Are we to believe the fictional treatment is really explaining the actual artist? Are we supposed to care, or not care, if the novel doesn’t reflect what is historically known of the now-fictionalized artist? Why did the author not write a novel about an artist without using the real artist’s name? It is possible to write a book whose subject evokes someone real but which doesn’t pretend to be semi-biographical (as Maugham does in Moon and Sixpence). Why not do that — because using the real artisti’s name is better for sales? And is there nothing disturbing about the thought that, for many readers who will not track down a biography of the actual artist, the novel becomes their total view of the artist’s life?

    1. It’s told from the point of view of Hopper’s wife, herself an artist but one who was given little attention, rather than Hopper. I suspect it was the imbalance resulting from such a relationship that Hickey wanted to explore, that and tell a good story.

  6. Pingback: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey | Richmond Hill Reading @ The Roebuck

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