Tag Archives: The Narrow Land

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of February’s paperback goodies didn’t set foot outside America but this second instalment starts in the heart of Europe with Robert Menasse’s The Capital, something of a bittersweet read for me given my country’s Brexit shenanigans. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club, sadly no longer a possibility. Like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Set in West Berlin during the summer of 1989, Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man follows eighteen-year-old Ralf who is enjoying a summer of freedom until he discovers something about his family which turns his life upside down. ‘As old Cold War tensions begin to tear his life apart, he finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, forced to make impossible choices about his country, his family and his heart’ according to the publishers. Regular readers may have noticed that a Berlin backdrop is catnip for me

It was its Berlin setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. In 1923 newly divorced Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s engrossing, perceptive novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land is about the marriage between two artists – one acclaimed, the other not. The summer of 1950 was one of many Edward Hopper spent with his wife, Josephine, on Cape Cod but this year a ten-year-old German war orphan, traumatizedCover image by war, has come to stay with their neighbours. Written in Hickey’s subtle yet precise style, unshowy and often appropriately painterly, it’s a pleasingly nuanced novel which I enjoyed very much.

Back to Europe for Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian which is something of a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has praised it to the skies so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.

I’m not entirely sure about Sadie Jones’ The Snakes, either, having failed to see what so many others did in The Outcast, her much-praised debut. Bea and Dan have rented out their flat for a few months and driven to France where they plan to visit Bea’s brother at his hotel. When they arrive, they find Alex alone and the dilapidated hotel empty. The arrival of Bea and Alex’s rich parents makes Dan wonder why he’s never met them before. All of which may not sound very exciting but ‘tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape’ say the publishers intriguingly. We’ll see.

Cover imageI’d also dithered about my last February paperback, Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Hadley’s writing but her books are set in a world that can feel a little too cramped for me however the premise of this one appealed. It follows a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly. Despite its small canvas, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.

That’s it for February. A very satisfying month. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for any that have taken your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here, new titles are here and here.

My 2019 (Man) Booker Wish List

Another year, another Man Booker Prize longlist in the offing, except this year its reverted to the Booker Prize, thanks to a change of sponsorship with Crankstart stepping into the funding breach as of June 1st this year. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2018 and 30th September 2019, and have been written in English. Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. The judges usually allow themselves twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen and this year I have, too. Their list will be revealed on Wednesday, 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.

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Little                                                         Flames                                   Land of the Living

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Memories of the Future              In the Full Light of the Sun            A Stranger City

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We, The Survivors                            The Narrow Land                       The Language of Birds

 

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Starling Days                                     The Dutch House                    The Hiding Game

Beyond the Sea

It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here before September 3rd when the shortlist is announced but I’m sticking to the tried and tested. And if I had to choose one? That’s a tough decision this year. It’s a toss-up between A Stranger City, The Dutch House and Land of the Living, although there are several others I’d be loath to relinquish.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

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.

My Wish List for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The longlist for my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction, is due to be announced next Monday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2018 and March 31st 2019 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

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Transcription                              The Death of Noah Glass           White Houses

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Putney                                           All Among the Barley               Ghost Wall

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Land of the Living                        My Sister, the Serial Killer       In the Full Light of the Sun

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Improvement                              We Must Be Brave                         Old Baggage

 

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Lost Children Archive                  The Narrow Land                        Memories of the Future

Several of my favourite writers are listed here – Kate Atkinson, Amy Bloom, Siri Hustvedt, Georgina Harding – but I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention. We’ll see. Any titles that you’d love to see on the judges’ list?

That’s it from me for a few days. We’re off for what could be our last weekend as European citizens abroad. I may need tissues. Back next week to tell you all about it.