Not a great deal happens in Edward Hopper’s paintings; women sit or stand or stare out of windows; light moves across the exterior of a building. They are uncluttered and languorous and master classes in draughtsmanship. The same could be said of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s latest novel, in which Hopper is a central figure. Everything about the writing is so carefully balanced – thought and action, feeling and movement, drama and suspense. She leaves space on the page, giving her characters the freedom to behave unexpectedly and to occupy the mind of the reader even when they are offstage. It is a long time since I have read such a fine novel or one that I have enjoyed quite so much.
It is 1950 and 10-year-old Michael, the orphaned survivor of a concentration camp, leaves his adoptive parents in New York to spend the summer in Cape Cod with Mrs Kaplan, her grandson Richie, and her two daughters. Michael is intended to be a playmate for Richie who has lost his father in the war, but the boys do not get along. Nearby, Edward Hopper and his artist wife Josephine have a summerhouse and when Michael meets Jo the two form an unlikely bond. Katherine Kaplan, the spectral maiden aunt, is dying of an unnamed illness. She spends her time resting and smoking and wandering listlessly. Both Edward and Michael are captivated by her.
Written in the third person, the book switches perspectives multiple times, often within chapters. Our three main points of contact are Michael, Jo and Edward. Each character’s interior life is unique. Michael is processing the trauma he has experienced and his mental landscape is characterised by darkness. When he looks out of a train window he sees “the shapes of firewood pickers bent to the ground like black hooks” and on another occasion he sees the shadows of trees “dancing like black jigsaw pieces”. Jo is given to jealous rages over what she has sacrificed to her husband’s talent. She even seems to envy his apparent lack of feeling: “A man is such an ungrateful creature. Oh, but he is also a creature of enviable self-control.” Edward’s mind is occupied by mapping his relationship in space and time to the objects and people around him: “Richie and Katherine and himself. Three static points on an equilateral triangle. A frenzy of light and movement between them. Ruthless light of mid to late afternoon.” These shifts are never distracting and Dwyer Hickey manages to sustain an even tone throughout. She inhabits the mind of a child at one moment and the mind of a middle-aged woman the next. Every character feels separate and fully realised while also being part of the same canvas.
From Shakespeare to Elizabeth Bowen to Ian McEwan, writers have always recognised the dramatic potential of a party. The set piece in this novel is a party hosted by the Kaplans and it is almost 100 pages long. The author describes the gorgeous sense of anticipation in a house about to come alive. New players arrive and depart and cross paths with the central characters and Dwyer Hickey builds tension from even the most seemingly ordinary interactions. Jo Hopper’s gauche attempts to gain the upper hand with a group of women who will only ever see her as Mrs Edward Hopper are excruciating. By the end of the party, none of the characters are the same but the ways in which they have changed and how they react to these changes are continually surprising.
The epigraph to this novel is from Montaigne – “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Christine Dwyer Hickey shows a profound understanding of human weakness and longing and regret and uses the full range of tools at her disposal to express them. She uses the body to convey so much and at exactly the right moment – at other times she recognises that what is called for is pure unabashed feeling and she is not afraid to go there either. When her writing is at its most powerful, she combines both physical and emotional reactions. After Jo and Michael return from a walk, Michael takes a nap. While she watches the child sleep “the feeling comes on her again, under her breastbone, between her ribs. A feeling that is one second of joy, two seconds of grief. And she knows then: what has been removed is loneliness and what has been added is love.”