I’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 Dwyer’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 bed
Dwyer’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 Dwyer’s Jo Hopper so desperately craved.