|With “Trespass,” Rose Tremain takes a look at a different kind of migrant. (Jerry Bauer)|
Lurking in dark territory
Revenge, family secrets in the countryside of southern France
The British writer Rose Tremain has been publishing her far-ranging work for more than 30 years, but until her 10th novel won the Orange Prize in 2008, she was probably best known for her historical fiction. “The Road Home,’’ which followed the adventures — vicissitudes might be a better word — of a Polish migrant worker in contemporary London, brought her even wider acclaim. Now, in her new novel, “Trespass,’’ this versatile writer turns her attention to a different kind of migrant: namely, well-to-do English people who choose to make their homes in France and who in doing so are in danger both of trespassing and of bringing to light the trespasses of the past. The result is complex, suspenseful, and almost hypnotically readable.
“Trespass’’ opens like a thriller. A 10-year-old girl named Melodie, herself an unhappy migrant from Paris to the Cevennes, sets aside her ham sandwich with its “repulsive grey-green shimmer” and walks away from her school picnic in search of solitude. She finds it on the bank of a stream, but before she can dive into the deep pool she sees something that starts her screaming. Only much later does the reader learn what it was.
The next two sections take us in turn to a deserted antiques shop in London, where Anthony Verey, the 64-year-old owner, sits drinking coffee, and to a forest in the Cevennes, where Audrun Lunel, the owner of the forest, also 64, is going for a walk. In the hands of a lesser writer, these mysterious jumps might be an irksome strategy, but Tremain’s prose is so immediate and her sense of character so compelling that I was happy to follow her into the lives of her five main characters and their complicated pasts even when I had no idea how they connected.
The story of “Trespass’’ is propelled by Anthony’s decision to close his once fashionable shop and begin his life over in the south of France, where his sister, the only person for whom he feels anything like true affection, has made her home. “Veronica lived with her friend Kitty in a fine old stone farmhouse, ‘Les Glaniques’, in one of those villages south of Anduze, in the Gard, where the 21st century hardly seemed to have arrived and where Veronica went about her life in a mood of robust contentment. She was getting fat . . . but she didn’t mind and Kitty didn’t mind. They went together to the market at Anduze and bought bigger clothes.” The plain and practical Kitty paints watercolors that she is hoping will illustrate the book that Veronica, a landscape gardener, is writing: “Gardening Without Rain.’’ But Anthony’s arrival quickly brings an end to their contentment. While Veronica adores her little brother, Kitty rightly fears him — and his effect on her friend.
In a more circuitous way, Anthony also begins to change the lives of the other sister and brother pair in “Trespass’’: Audrun and Aramon Lunel. Deeply estranged and deeply damaged, Audrun and Aramon live within sight of each other — Aramon in the once substantial family home, Mas Lunel, and Audrun in a ramshackle cottage hastily built on the land their father left her. When Anthony decides to look for a house to buy, he visits Mas Lunel and unwittingly provides Audrun with both the final motivation and the means to take revenge on her brother.
Audrun and Aramon are at the heart of the novel, and it is in writing about Audrun, whose inner life is conveyed in piercing detail, that Tremain demonstrates her most profound empathy. Everyone — “friends, doctors, even the priest” — tells Audrun that she is confused, and she agrees. “There were moments when consciousness or existence or whatever it was that you had to call being alive, there were moments when it . . . faltered.” These episodes of unconsciousness began after the death of her beloved mother, when Audrun was 15. And everything else changed too. No wonder Audrun is afraid that the little nub of weak metal, the flimsy lock on the flimsy door of her bungalow, won’t keep her safe.
Tremain is too subtle a writer, and “Trespass’’ too sophisticated a novel, to allow us to draw exact parallels among her five characters. Still, the reader cannot help noting that Audrun and Kitty are each threatened with losing her home, that Audrun and Anthony each still miss their long dead mothers, and that Veronica and Aramon each bear the burden of having failed to protect their younger siblings. These echoes resonate throughout the narrative, deepening and complicating the effect of the story.
So, too, do the several houses. Fleeing Anthony and Veronica’s company, Kitty wonders, “Doesn’t every love need to create for itself its own protected space? And if so, why don’t lovers understand the damage trespass can do?” If anyone should understand the idea of trespass, it is surely Anthony with his beloved antiques, but his search for the perfect dwelling blinds him. He fails to notice that Aramon’s father has dismantled part of Mas Lunel to sell the stones, and that the front façade has been newly plastered to conceal a deep fissure.
People are damaged; houses are ruined; the land is scarred. Is there any redemption to be found? Tremain suggests that there may be. The land can recover, and people, although they can never have the years over again — “A life is a life,” Audrun says — can offer forgiveness and find themselves in a new place.
Margot Livesey is a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College. Her most recent novel is “The House on Fortune Street.’’ She can be reached at email@example.com.