Irish author Christine Dwyer Hickey’s exploration of the marriage of the American artists Edward and Jo Hopper has won the £25,000 Walter Scott prize for historical fiction.
Set in 1950, Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land follows Michael, an orphan who has survived a concentration camp, as he is sent to spend the summer on Cape Cod with a boy called Richie and his mother. While there, the boys form an unlikely friendship with the Hoppers.
The novel took six years to write, the author said, “which is why I really, really appreciate this recognition”.
“I would like to send my thoughts to a grave in a hillside cemetery in Nyack, overlooking the Hudson River, a few miles from New York City, where the artists Edward and Jo Hopper lie, and where I hope they have at last found peace,” she said. “I also hope they will forgive me the intrusion.”
The judges said the work “reaches into the heart of the creative impulse itself”.
“It’s a risky business, portraying the marriage of two artists, particularly when both the marriage and the art have already been picked over by biographers and art historians. Christine Dwyer Hickey has embraced the risk and created a masterpiece,” said the judges, who included James Naughtie and Kirsty Wark.
“Quietly, inexorably, and with pinpoint perception, our winner has brought to dramatic life not just the Hoppers’ intimate eruptions but the tensions and complexities in those around them, from two young boys scarred by war to the transient summer crowd at Cape Cod, and through this forensic lens we glimpse the upheavals that were to shake all Americans in the postwar world.”
The Walter Scott prize, founded in 2009, rewards the best fiction set 60 or more years ago, in honour of Scott, who subtitled his novel Waverley “Tis Sixty Years Since”. It is funded by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, who are distantly related to the author.
Dwyer Hickey’s novel competed with works by authors including Joseph O’Connor and James Meek to take the prize.
Previous winners include Sebastian Barry and Ben Myers.