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Words of love, words of venom

Neil Hegarty

The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, Atlantic Books, 384 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1786496713

The cover art of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s novel The Narrow Land consists of a detail from Edward Hopper’s painting Sea Watchers (1952). Although the pair of figures in this piece are discovered seated on their terrace with the ocean before them, they gaze not at this glorious panorama, nor at each other – but at inward views, into atomisation, into the events of and spaces in their lives. They are enigmatic and silent, both twinned and apart; they grapple with – one imagines – the effect of words recently and unwisely spoken, as well as with the strain of what cannot be said. The painting vibrates with tension.

The same might be said of The Narrow Land, which is an exercise not in explicit narrative momentum but rather in psychological insight. Dwyer Hickey has chosen as the novel’s epigraph Montaigne’s maxim that “Every man has within himself the entire human condition”: and she sets to work to encapsulate – and, wryly, to universalise – this remark by bringing a disparate group of characters together in a time and a place of sunshine and abundance, before setting to work to execute the shadows that are a necessary element in any such illuminated scene.

The time is the summer of 1950, with the United States in a position of unrivalled dominance in the Western world, and entering a period of hitherto undreamt-of mass material prosperity. The place is the “narrow land” of Cape Cod, into which brass-bright milieu steps young Michael – Micha – who has been plucked as a Displaced Person from the ruins of postwar Europe to begin a new life in the new world. Michael is expected to embrace this fine proffered existence: the horrors he has witnessed must be shoved firmly into a history now dead and gone, and safely an ocean away. He is expected to “unlearn” – and fast.

On Cape Cod too we find the “Aitches” – the fictionalised figures of Edward and Jo Hopper, who each in their own way are trapped, frozen, unhappy amid the sunlight and the trappings of the American dream. The Narrow Land is concerned to amplify in particular the inner life of Jo Hopper, who finds herself occupying a position only too familiar in history: that of the Wife, faithful, constant, willing to sublimate her own creative identity the better to further the career of her husband. That Jo Hopper in fact has retained her creative autonomy and talent is lost on the artistic establishment, which declines to regard her as a serious artist in her own right – and her resulting frustrations and their consequences are followed with delicacy. And with honesty: as Jo Hopper traces “the words of love and words of venom” she has written in her journal, she is obliged to recognise the responsibility she must herself assume for the shape and form of her life, and the knowledge that she has been, at least in part, a player in the game.

This is a profoundly empathetic novel, its impact all the greater for its abiding reticence. Its great achievement, indeed, lies in its reconciliation of this reticence with a deep emotional power: in the relationship – the perfect balance – between its deliberately unshowy form and tone, and the great sweeps and depths of feeling embedded with the narrative. One is reminded of the novels of Anita Brookner, which similarly eschew excessive flights of emotion in favour of an arguably more impactful awareness of silence and control. And of course, the narrative deliberately echoes Edward Hopper’s own artistic style: as he in his work portrays characters – in ones, or two, or groups – silently experiencing sensations of loneliness, resignation, or plain boredom against a range of backdrops, so Christine Dwyer Hickey’s method has been to capture such inner lives in words. And in images: as she describes the way that lights and shadows fall on surfaces, and on faces, and on scenes, her words mirror the effects sought by a painter regarding a canvas.

The result is marvellously effective – the more so when one reflects that the frustrations of the characters are too often articulated in ways that are hateful, waves of violence that break shockingly the novel’s still surface. The Hoppers’ agitation finds expression in physical violence as well as in brief bursts of angry words; Michael’s equally youthful – and resentful – companion Ritchie is capable of a child’s ugly deeds, the effect of which are only magnified by our knowledge of Michael’s ongoing, deep-seated psychological trauma.

This unhappy and unproductive period in Edward Hopper’s life ended with the creation of Cape Cod Morning (1952) – and the book, as we might expect, takes its cue from this point of conclusion, or rather of termination. The summer ends, the individuals – for such they remain; this is no party of companions – go their separate ways, life continues inexorably. It is possible to take from this book a sense of the inexorability of the creative impulse too – but this reader was left instead with a strong sense of the seclusion evoked by Two Comedians (1966), Edward Hopper’s final painting, as the players step off the stage into a life of blessed privacy, perhaps – or perhaps into the shrouded existence suggested powerfully by the painting’s backdrop. Christine Dwyer Hickey’s objective in this novel has been to observe lives lived in a play of light and shadow, while never averting her gaze from an awareness of the darkness and silence that await us all.

1/12/2019

Neil Hegarty's latest novel is The Jewel (Head of Zeus).

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