Trespass, by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, 2010; Vintage, [pbk] 2011)
It isn’t hard to find why Trespass was long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It’s a terrific, multi-layered story, which demands more than one reading to uncover the depth of Tremain’s imaginative and intellectual achievement. At its simplest, the incisive shifting viewpoint reveals how damage inflicted in childhood shapes adult desires. Cumulatively, through careful structuring, convincing characterisation, and a probing narrative, Tremain puzzles all the possible meanings of ‘trespass’.
The story opens and closes with Mélodie, a girl who is unhappy and homesick in her new home in the Cévennes region of France. She misses her Paris apartment and friends and hates the inhospitable, constantly moving countryside and the unkindnesses of her new, bullying classmates. Although Mélodie is absent for the next 200 pages or so, Tremain’s tight plotting ensures that she remains firmly in mind. Childhood taunts and jealousies, whispers of war collaborators, silk worm farming and the Cévenol landscape are woven through the unfolding story as constant reminders that we have left her alone and screaming beside a deep pool.
Tremain moves between France and England and two very different sets of aging siblings as she builds slowly towards a dreadful crime. Anthony and Veronica Verey carry childhood burdens, while Audrun and Aramon Lunel carry past hurts and secretly plot against each other. When their paths cross the tension is finally released, and for a while, the story focuses on the crime and its solution. But this is not a ‘who-done-it’ crime thriller, although it does have a crime and it is thrilling. Tremain’s focus is on the detritus of cruelty and unkindnesses accumulated throughout childhood which resurface in adulthood.
Anthony is a self-important antiques dealer, more in love with his objects [his beloveds] than people. A ‘descending curve’ in his sales ledger prompts an impulsive visit to his sister, Veronica, and her timid partner, Kitty, at Les Glaniques in the Cévennes.
With Anthony’s arrival, Veronica, or ‘V’, is torn between passion and familial love, while the inappropriately named Kitty Meadows moons around like a huffy teenager. An only child, Kitty can’t understand the close-ties and long-standing responsibilities of sibling love. She is jealous about losing Veronica’s attention and asks herself,
“Doesn’t every love need to create for itself its own protected space? And if so, why don’t lovers understand better the damage trespass can do?”
Self-interest is a major trespass or sin in the novel. Kitty’s self-interest prevents her from understanding that, as much as she wants to keep Veronica all to herself, at this point, it is she who is encroaching on the Verey’s ‘protected space’.
Anthony decides, again impulsively, that here, in Veronica’s adopted land, he has found the happiness he craves and, with Veronica and Kitty in tow, he commences a search across the region for a new home. It is this search for happiness, for self-fulfilment, that leads to tragedy.
Fate would have it that, at exactly the same time as Anthony begins his search, Aramon Lunel puts the ‘Mas Lunel’, his neglected family home, on the open market. He suspects that his sister Audrun’s modern bungalow encroaches his land and he plots to remove her so that a sale can go through uncontested. Audrun, meanwhile, is plotting how she might repossess the ‘Mas Lunel’ and exact retribution from Aramon for the abusive years she spent as the sole female under its roof.
Tremain’s figurative language brings depth and credibility to her characters and adds texture to the narrative. Of Anthony, she writes, “His plans chattered away in his mind like Happy Hour drinkers, ”, and Audrun “imagined how she would jab the bowl on his [Aramon’s] face, like covering a spider with a cup.” A paraphrased quotation from the old Book of Common Prayer (1692) reinforces the cyclical imagery of Nature, which lies at the heart of Trespass: “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live … He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower, he fleeth as it were a shadow … Earth to earth, ashes to ashes….”
Through Audrun’s deep-seated rage against her terrible past, Tremain ponders profound questions of ownership and neglect. Who owns the earth? What happens when man neglects his role as caretaker?
[…] it was the land that mattered. In recent time, their mania to make money from their houses, thousands of Cévenol people had seemed to forget their roles as caretakers of the land. Diseases came to the trees. The vine terraces crumbled. The rivers silted up. And nobody seemed to notice or care – as if these things would cure themselves, as if Nature would do man’s work while he sat – as Aramon sat – in front of his vast TV, lasering his brain with kilowatts of meaningless light.
And what about the new people, the foreigners, who were buying the land? They’re helpless, Audrun thought. Helpless. It isn’t their fault. They’re affected – she knew they truly were – by the beauty of it. They begin by believing they can care for it all by some means. But in fact, they don’t understand one single thing about the earth.
Ultimately, Tremain reveals the redemptive power of both confessing our trespasses and forgiving those who trespass against us. The last image of ‘white blossoms remain[ing] luminous and bright’ is a hopeful one and a reminder that “the turning of the seasons brings their own, more kindly alteration”.
Trespass is another title from the Richard and Judy Book Club list – [for Spring 2011]check out the website for some very mixed reviews.
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