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Set against the backdrop of 1950s Cape Cod, ‘The Narrow Land’ tells the story of ten year old Michael who forges an unlikely friendship with the artists Jo and Edward Hopper.
Here, in an exclusive piece for the Eason blog, ‘The Narrow Land’ author Christine Dwyer Hickey shares her inspiration behind her eagerly anticipated novel, which is published on 7 March.
"I tend to start the same way: - location and first character. Often, they lie in my mind for years at a time - as was the case for The Narrow Land. The first character was given to me in 2012 by a man at the Leipzig book fair who told me a story about his childhood in post-war Germany. Like most children then, he was suffering from malnutrition and had to be sent to live on a farm to recover. Many of these children were orphans; some would later be sent to America to be adopted. It stuck with me, this little boy, sitting in a train filled with other boys, going off like little piggies to be fattened for the market, while outside, the ravaged landscape rolled by.
A couple of years later, I paid a visit to a remote part of Cape Cod and knew at once, that the light infused-land would be my location and that somehow, I would have to get my little boy - now named Micha, there.
I don’t know why I set the novel in 1950, except that it was a time of transition in America. The age of consumerism was in full swing and the idea of the perfect American housewife was being heavily marketed. Many families had lost loved ones in WW2 and the returned heroes hadn’t always settled back. But people were getting used to peacetime again. And then, the Korean War broke out.
By 2015, I was ready to get going on the novel when, purely by chance, it was discovered that I had a tumour on one of my kidneys and that it would have to be removed. I already had an impaired immunity system and the recovery was slow and difficult. To be honest, I gave up all notion of writing this or any other novel.
Then, one afternoon when I was feeling particularly sick and sorry for myself, I came across a documentary on the TV by the American artist Edward Hopper. Mostly set on Cape Cod, it showed the summer house built by Hopper and his wife Jo, the blinding light on the sea beneath it, the acres of deserted beach. There was something other-worldly about it. I watched it many times in the coming weeks and somehow, I began to enter the Hoppers’ difficult marriage. Always an admirer of Hopper’s paintings, I now began to examine his life.
Scraps of my own life went into this novel – I gave Katherine, with whom Hopper would become infatuated, cancer of the kidney and I found the structure of the noel during a performance of Holst’s The Planets Suite. The first movement, The Bringer of War, seemed to fit Jo Hopper so well. An early feminist, she was argumentative, highly intelligent, volatile and given to violent bouts of sexual jealousy.
There were times when I didn’t feel well enough to continue writing. But I thought of Hopper, ill and depressed by an inability to work in the summer of 1950. I thought of Micha too, and children like him, living through a war and never knowing who to trust. I reminded myself that all things pass and, I got on with it."
Christine Dwyer Hickey
1950: late summer season on Cape Cod. Michael, a ten-year-old boy, is spending the summer with Richie and his glamorous but troubled mother. Left to their own devices, the boys meet a couple living nearby - the artists Jo and Edward Hopper - and an unlikely friendship is forged. She, volatile, passionate and often irrational, suffers bouts of obsessive sexual jealousy. He, withdrawn and unwell, depressed by his inability to work, becomes besotted by Richie's frail and beautiful Aunt Katherine who has not long to live - an infatuation he shares with young Michael. A novel of loneliness and regret, the legacy of World War II and the ever-changing concept of the American Dream.