Nuanced portrait of fragility
Fiction: The Narrow Land
Christine Dwyer Hickey
Atlantic Books, €14.99
It is late summer 1950. The war is over, but for two little boys, one American, the other German, there is still a lot to come to terms with. Michael, a traumatised 10-year-old German orphan who has been adopted by an American family, is spending the summer in Cape Cod - The Narrow Land - with Richie, who lost his father during the war, and his mother, the terminally-ill but beautiful Aunt Katherine and various hangers-on. Left to entertain themselves, the boys meet a couple of artists living nearby - Jo and Edward Hopper - and a friendship is forged.
The chapters cycle through several point-of-view characters, with each section offering a fresh perspective into often flawed and unlikeable characters. Jo Hopper can come across as an obsessive, narcissistic and demanding wife, but elsewhere we see her as just lonely and underappreciated, frustrated by her own lack of artistic success. Christine Dwyer Hickey's portrayal of her marriage to Edward is much nuanced, displaying acute psychological insight into a complex relationship.
Loss in its many guises is examined: loss of a child, a father, a brother, health and creativity. And issues of parenthood, adoption and childlessness are dealt with, the complexity of each treated in a compassionate, nuanced way. The novel is set up like an artwork itself, with broad brushstrokes and fine lines, layer upon layer, scene upon scene. You feel the heat of the summer, the sights and sounds of the Truro beach. You understand the lives the characters lead and the small privileged community they find themselves in. You feel some characters sliding out of focus while others become more intensely illuminated, like this narrow strip of land itself.
This is no plot-driven page-turner, rather a slow, ethereal thing, where you stop after each paragraph and let the achingly beautiful words resonate. You feel the weight of history but with a lightness of touch. Michael's memories of Germany will haunt you as they haunt him, but mostly you come away with the impression of the slant of summer sunlight in Cape Cod.