Book Review: The Narrow Land

The Narrow Land, by Christine Dwyer Hickey, is set in Cape Cod in the summer of 1950. It is a study of people, how they regard themselves and how they are judged by those they meet. There is an undercurrent of sadness, of privilege failing to offer fulfilment. The ebbs and flows of both adult and child relationships are evoked with skill.

The story opens by introducing ten year old Michael who was brought to America from Germany after the Second World War as part of a government programme offering a new way of life to orphaned children. Michael was adopted by the Novak’s whose infant son died. Now Mrs Novak is pregnant again and Michael is concerned that he is being dismissed from their home in New York as he is no longer required. Mrs Novak views the opportunity to send him to Cape Cod for the summer as potentially beneficial for all involved.

The Kaplans have taken a summer rental on Cape Cod for their family and friends. Mrs Kaplan suggested to Mrs Novak that Michael join them as a playmate for her grandson, Richie, who is still grieving for his father, killed in the Second World War. It is assumed by the adults that the boys will get on despite their backgrounds and upbringing being so different. Their summer by the beach is regarded as a treat for which they are expected to be grateful.

Not far from the Kaplan’s holiday home is the summer residence of the artist, Edward Hopper, and his volatile wife, Josephine. Unlike the local adults, who fawn over the famous artist in their midst, the young boys are unaware of the couple’s celebrity status. Michael and then Richie strike up a friendship with the pair that then draws the Kaplans and Hoppers together. Josephine grows jealous of her husband’s perceived interest in this household of women.

The points of view shift as the story progresses offering a window into each of the key characters’ thoughts, disappointments and aspirations. Josephine is a particularly complex character, not likeable but evoking a degree of sympathy. Her feelings towards her husband and his work are proprietorial and demanding:

“deafened by the clash of envy and pride, admiration and resentment”

Loneliness and self-pity are explored as is the disconnect that occurs when expectation leads to misunderstanding. The Hoppers are shown to connect with both boys better than the Kaplans, who demand a standard of behaviour that suits their societal standing. They project their own thoughts and interpretations onto these young people, rarely concerning themselves with reactions.

Katherine Kaplan, who is ill and declining, offers friendship to a besotted Michael but not loyalty when it matters. Edward is also drawn to her fading beauty, a risky preoccupation given his wife’s temper.

Josephine regards herself as a talented artist whose work deserved some of the attention her husband achieved. She blames him for not being a sufficiently loyal advocate over the years of their marriage. When she attends a party at the Kaplans’ she tries to raise her cachet amongst the guests by putting others down.

“She feels sorry then and slightly ashamed of herself for trying to demean them by demeaning their lives.”

When she overhears how this behaviour was regarded, something she has heard said of her before, she is mortified and blames Edward for not doing more to ensure her talents are revered by the people they meet. We are shown that Edward has been doing the best he can.

The writing flows gently throughout yet offers a depth of insight as the summer progresses towards fall and festering frustrations bubble to the surface. Each of the characters is flawed with the denouement offering an alternative view of their behaviours when another couple arrives on the scene.

The narrative is haunting as reader empathy is sparked and then repeatedly challenged. A deceptively straightforward story that provides a lingering, satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Atlantic Books.