Thursday 17 October 2019

Two troubled souls and a mysterious orphan

Fiction: The Narrow Land

Christine Dwyer Hickey

Atlantic, hardback, 384 pages, €19

An exploration: The Narrow Land is Dwyer Hickey's first novel since 2015. Photo: David Conachy
An exploration: The Narrow Land is Dwyer Hickey's first novel since 2015. Photo: David Conachy
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey

John Boland

In Christine Dwyer Hickey's new novel, which is set during the summer of 1950, a 10-year-old German boy who lives in New York with his foster parents is sent for the summer to Cape Cod, where he becomes friendly with a famous American painter and his wife.

In terms of storyline, that's about it, the author is more interested in exploring the inner lives of her characters than in devising plot twists, but it makes for a book that requires condiderable patience from the reader, especially when it comes to the slow drip feed of basic facts.

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For instance, the boy, orphaned and saved by the American Red Cross in the aftermath of World War II and brought to the US, isn't named until page 124, when he discloses to the painter's wife that he's called Micha, though hurriedly changing that to the more acceptable Michael.

This delaying tactic is curious, though the refusal to provide names for the painter and his wife is even odder. The book's publisher and the author's own website identify them as the renowned US artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo, who spent much of their later years in Cape Cod, but in the novel they're not named and the reader only knows them as Mr and Mrs Aitch - the boy's fond way of calling them.

So is the novel (the Dublin author's first since The Lives of Women in 2015) about their lives or about the life of the boy? At the outset it seems that it will chiefly concern the latter and his sense of being a fearful and alienated outsider in a foreign land, but the reader learns little about his traumatic past and as the book progresses, he becomes an almost peripheral figure - mainly of interest through his friendship with Mr and Mrs Aitch.

Indeed, it is their troubled relationship that gradually gives the book real substance and impact. She's especially well-drawn, a devoted keeper of her spouse's flame, but needy and resentful, too - reflecting of some women she encounters on the beach that "as soon as they found out who she was married to, they would lose all interest in her".

Mrs Aitch had been a young painter herself when she first met her husband, but now confides in an older friend: "I am still disregarded. By him, his peers."

And when she seeks information about the fate of some recent paintings sent on her behalf to a New York gallery, her spouse pretends there's no news about them, though he has destroyed the letter declaring that they've been rejected. Throughout the book they have terrible rows, though tentative reconciliations, too, and there's the sense of a couple so aware of the life they've spent together and of the threat of loneliness if separated that they're unable to persist with the petty cruelties they inflict on each other. Because of his art and fame, though, he's more self-contained than her and when she says of Richie, the boy with whom Michael is staying for the summer, that he "may be the loneliest person I have ever met", she's thinking of herself, too.

It's Richie who triggers the novel's most dramatic scene, when he causes Michael to be accused of theft after a lavish garden party thrown for vacationing worthies. Michael had been singled out for approving attention during an impromptu speech and Richie later confesses: "I was mad at him and wanted him to get in trouble."

Otherwise, in terms of incident, very little happens, and some of the incidental characters seem bit-part players with walk-on parts. Richie is little more than a resentful boy, his war-widow mother a loud-mouthed lush, his grandmother a well-meaning guardian to both boys, and her daughter an elusive figure who's dying of cancer.

And though the period is well evoked, with army recruitment and death in Korea dominating newspaper headlines, you feel that the people in this story are living in a cocoon, with nothing really impinging on their lives other than their own personal demons, which are mostly suppressed for the sake of propriety.

That's no doubt part of the book's point and the fact that the painter's wife can't always manage to control her demons is what gives the narrative a much-needed charge. The reader really does feel for her as she uneasily attends the ghastly garden party, where she reacts badly to the condescension of others.

"Go ahead, say it", she says to her husband later, "I disgraced myself again." "You shouldn't mind what people say," he tells her. "Do you think I am a terrible person?" she asks. "Why do you think I married you?" he gently responds.

It's a tender moment between two people who, in their separate ways, feel trapped in an often hurtful relationship yet who desperately depend on each other, too, and you may wonder why Dwyer Hickey didn't focus all of her attention on these two troubled souls.

Indeed, as the book goes on, you may wonder why so much time is being spent with young Michael, whose past life remains shadowy and whose future life remains unknowable to the end.

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