Monday, November 22, 2010
Book Review - Trespass by Rose Tremain
Two things drew me to Rose Tremain’s latest novel, Trespass. One was the fact that it was set in the Cévennes mountains of the Central Massif (south central France, a region I know well), and the second is that it was described as being “very dark.” I love France and have spent many happy years there, and I love well-written “dark” books.
Trespass revolves around five middle aged characters: two French siblings, Audrun and Aramon, who share a secret past, an English garden designer and writer, Veronica, and her lover, a mediocre watercolorist, Kitty, as well as Veronica’s brother, Anthony Verey, a London antiques dealer in his middle sixties, who has come to France to try to salvage what’s left of his life. While Audrun and Aramon are more or less estranged, Veronica and Anthony have remained very close.
Aramon Lunel is an alcoholic (he has an over-fondness for pastis, “the” drink of the South of France), who is in poor health. His deceased father, Serge, left him a wonderful stone mas, the Mas Lunel, which Aramon hopes to sell to Anthony for 475,000 euros. The only problem is the fact that Audrun, who was left the surrounding woodland, has built a squalid modern bungalow on the boundary that separates her land from Aramon’s, thus destroying the otherwise perfect view and destroying one of Anthony’s requirements for any property he might buy – aesthetic beauty (solitude is the other requirement). Audrun, who steadfastly refuses to rebuild deeper in the forest, out of sight of the Mas Lunel, alienates Anthony, Aramon, and all the local estate agents, who feel they cannot sell the Mas Lunel until the dispute between brother and sister is settled. In the meantime, Anthony’s continued presence in Veronica’s and Kitty’s home is driving a wedge between the two women as Veronica chooses, with increasing frequency, to take Anthony’s side over Kitty’s in any dispute.
Although the Mas Lunel can definitely be restored to its former idyllic beauty, Aramon has not kept it up. Tremain writes, "...thousands of Cévenol people had seemed to forget their role 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." No, Aramon doesn’t care. He only cares about getting out. He has no love for the Mas Lunel or the land around it.
Audrun, however, living in her shabby bungalow, can’t bear to leave the land she loves despite the fact that the Mas Lunel holds many bitter memories for her. In fact, possessing the mas is the one thing that keeps Audrun going from day-to-day.
As would be expected, all of the main characters in Trespass have either trespassed on the rights of others or are planning to do so. Kitty, who realizes that the deep bond between Anthony and Veronica was formed long before she and Veronica even met struggles with the once carefree relationship she and her lover shared, a relationship that is now facing destruction from outside forces. "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?"
Unlike Anthony and Veronica, Audrun and Aramon do not have the same kind of close bond. Though they both adored their mother, Bernadette, their father was abusive, and he encouraged Aramon to follow his example. Both brother and sister struggle to come to terms with their poisoned past, though they struggle in different ways.
Tremain does a good job of conjuring up the menace that lingers in the Cévenol no matter how bright the sun or how warm the temperature. I can’t really say I felt like I was in those forbidding and dangerous hills, but maybe that’s "just me." I can say that from the very first page, which couldn’t fail to pull any reader in, I knew that these characters were heading toward something terrible, though I wasn’t sure what. Tremain, thankfully, manages to sustain the suspense until the very last page, and even after we find out who the "bad guy" is and what he or she’s done, we don’t know if he or she will get away with it. The book reminded me a little of the works of Thomas Hardy – characters at the mercy of fate, people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and strangely, Trespass, which was longlisted for 2010’s Man Booker Prize, reminds me a little of an earlier Man Booker winner, John Banville’s The Sea, though the setting and subject matter are entirely different.
Along the way, Tremain gives us a history lesson of the Cévennes. She tells us about the decline of the once thriving silk industry, the poor working conditions Audrun once endured in the underwear factory in Ruasse, the way the Cévenol people never hoped for more than what they already had. But it’s the sense of isolation, of ever-present menace that really captures the spirit of the area and adds to the darkness of this book. The woods of holm oak and beech and chestnut and pine are lovely, but Tremain never lets us forget that its loveliness is fraught with danger.
While I could feel sympathy for some of the characters in Trespass, I really didn’t like any of them, other than Mélodie, a little girl we meet in the first chapter and then don’t see again for about two hundred pages or so. I’m not surprised. They aren’t, by any means, likable people. They seem either blind to their faults or dismissive of them. But they did seem real. They were one hundred percent believable and so is their story.
The only quibble I have with this book is a maddening habit of Tremain’s to write "and now he, Anthony" or "now that she, Kitty...." For god’s sake, Ms. Tremain, we know who you’re talking about. The reference is distracting. Even though grammatically correct, this habit really got on my nerves and it reminded me of something a lesser writer would do, not someone of Tremain’s status.
Trespass isn’t my favorite Rose Tremain book, by any stretch. I don’t think it can hold a candle to the magnificent Music and Silence, which I read years ago and still think about often, but other than the above grammatical quibble, I really can’t point to any particular fault, though something holds it back from greatness.
In the end, Trespass is an engrossing and unsettling story, and by Tremain’s standards, it’s a dark one. Her characters are in search of redemption from their trespasses, and some of them are more active about pursuing that redemption than others. Is it worth it? Well, Tremain wisely leaves that for her readers to decide.
Recommended: Yes, to readers looking for a dark and atmospheric book. This isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a suspenseful and engrossing story, and one that’s extremely well crafted. And if you love books set in France, the Cévennes hills setting of Trespass will be a bonus.