Rose Tremain (2010) – Trespass

The first chapter of Trespass is a tour-de-force evocation of the world as seen through the eyes of Mélodie, a nearly distraught ten-year old girl who has recently moved from cosmopolitan Paris to the wilds of the Cévennes (a mountainous region of southeast France).  This chapter sets a standard that is never again achieved in the novel.  Tremain seems to have something of a fascination with the inner lives of hypersensitive children who are obsessed with animals, especially bugs.  A minor character in her Music & Silence has a similar fascination with and even mystical connection with such beasties.  Mélodie has no mystical connection with bugs.  She just finds them upsetting.  What Mélodie finds when she runs away by herself from a school class outing is more than upsetting.  We leave Mélodie screaming her head off.

In the second chapter, we meet Anthony Verey, a London dealer in antique furnishings, a man who loves only things.  His “beloveds” are his personal favorite pieces, which he pretends (to his clients, but not to himself) are for sale.  At the age of sixty-four, he is struck by the sudden realization that you really can’t take it with you—not even the smallest piece of thread from his beloved Louis XV Aubusson tapestry.  Anthony, the omniscient third-person narrator tells us is a man who “at the height of his celebrity [had] been able to lull himself to sleep by counting—one by delectable one—the people who envied him.”  (p.10)  Had been is the operative thought.  His celebrity, his wealth, his status, are all in the past.  He is now a has been.

He found himself admitting … that the envy of others .. had really and honestly been the thing that kept him alive.  This was an outrageous realization, but a true one.  (p.12)

The third chapter introduces Audrun Lunel, also age sixty-four, a woman who is immediately presented to us as defective.  “She knew she was often confused.”  (p.13)  “People told her this.  Friends, doctors, even the priest, they all said it….  And they were right.  There were moments when consciousness or existence … faltered.”  (p.13)  She has episodes of what we would call petit mal epilepsy in which she loses consciousness and later regains it with no memory of what has transpired in the interim.  Add to this a childhood in which her brother, Aramon, had convinced her that she was adopted, the biological daughter of a woman who collaborated with an SS man during the Nazi occupation.  Add further the fact that after the death of her mother, who was indeed Aramon’s mother as well, her father and her brother begin to sexually abuse her as—get this—a substitute for her deceased mother.

Audrun is, the narrator tells us, obsessed with the fear of trespass, the word that gives the book its title, motivates its central event, and recurs in various forms throughout the story.  Audrun’s mother whispered to her long ago:

‘Strangers can come.  And others who may not be strangers.  Anything that has existence can be stolen or destroyed.  So you must be vigilant.’  (p.15)

And now, her brother, Aramon, comes to her begging her to help him, for he is confused in his own way.  Initially we think it is the result of alcoholism, but it seems to be the same kind of petit mal epilepsy that afflicts Audrun.

In the fourth chapter, another trespass is conceived, this time by Anthony Verey.  In his depression over his dwindling wealth, status, and joie-de-vivre, he decides that his (three years) older sister V (for Veronica) will have to “rescue” him.

Anthony is mostly gay, although he thinks himself bisexual and was married for a bit.  His sister, Veronica, is lesbian, living in France, in the Cévennes, with her lover Kitty Meadows.  What a prosaic name.  Her character does not disappoint on prosaicness.  The author tries hard, I think, to like Kitty, but ends up portraying her in a rather poor light.  Veronica and Kitty are, as the French see them, typical English expatriates, but the women hadn’t thought about it, “until they found themselves objects of derision, sneered at as putains de rosbif [roast beef whores] by a group of youths” (p.28) in a local café.

Veronica announces to Kitty that Anthony is “in trouble and wants to come and stay with [them].  Just for a while.”  (p.31)  Famous last words.  Kitty has Anthony’s number. 

Anthony …. had always struck her as a man for whom everything was already clear, already decided, judged, categorised and appropriately filed and labeled.  What more, in a life as apparently selfish as his, was there left to understand?  (p.32)

The feeling between Anthony and Kitty is mutual.  He wants V all to himself and Veronica feels an older sibling responsibility for Anthony, which may have made sense during their childhood and adolescence, but now that he is sixty-four and she is sixty-seven, it is an atavism that should have long since evolved into something more even handed.

Kitty worries.  She looks for reassurance.  She lays her head in Veronica’s lap and the closest she can come to broaching her concern about what Anthony’s arrival will mean for her and Veronica’s relationship is to ask Veronica, “Stroke my hair, darling, will you?”  (p.49)  Veronica makes a less than half-hearted attempt to comply and the narrator tells us all we need to know about the future of their relationship.  “Actually, your hair is quite difficult to stroke.”  (p.49)  Bam!  So much for that, the rest is (about to become, at tedious length) history.

On a second reading, I began to wonder if Veronica was dealing from a full deck.  What is one to make of this exchange between Anthony and Veronica?

‘I hate women,’ he said to Veronica one night.  ‘I hate every single woman in the world, except you.’

‘I’m not a woman,’ said Veronica.  ‘I’m a horse.’

Three sets of characters in the first few chapters.  We know they will all collide eventually.

One can’t take seriously Anthony’s fabulously rich friends the Palmers, Lloyd and Benita.  They are, however the occasion of a delightful spate of rich and imaginative imagery combined with amusingly trenchant observations of human nature.  Comic relief, in other words.  Anthony dines with them the night before he takes off to inflict himself on Kitty and Veronica.  We see Lloyd Palmer “with his large but still handsome wife like a sequined spinnaker beside him.”  (p. 40)  And now, Anthony had drunk “a great deal of Lloyd’s excellent wine.  Lloyd had matched him, sip for sip, and the two of them now sat face to face, across a choppy lake of glassware.”  (p.40). 

The two men determine “as Lloyd has touchingly put it, ‘to get to the heart of the whole ruddy thing.’ ”  Palmer’s wife had gone to bed.  She “had read and understood both Ibsen and Lewis Carroll” and knew “that there was no ‘heart of the whole ruddy thing’ and that when men talked about searching for it, what they often wound up talking about was cars.”  (p.40) 

Anthony tells Lloyd about “ the only … time in his life he was happy.”  (p.40)  It turns out to be when Anthony gave a tea party for his mother in a tree house.  Lloyd observes to himself that “Time was getting to everybody of his generation now….  But it was getting to Anthony in a satisfyingly lethal way.”  (p.42)  The tea party story is interrupted when Lloyd excuses himself to go to the bathroom, but he reassures Anthony, “ ‘I want to hear the dénouement!  Truly I do….  This is as gripping as Winnie-the-Pooh.’ ”  (p.42) 

There is a crack in the façade of the Mas Lunel, the ancestral home of Audrun and Aramon in which Aramon is now living, Audrun having been relegated to a small bungalow nearby.  Audrun knows the crack is structural, and she worries about it, but no one cares.  Not Aramon, not the real estate agent, not the stonemason Aramon hires to hide the crack.  What is important to Aramon is to sell the house to a foreigner for half a million euros, so he can “live in clover for the rest of [his] days,” (p.38) whatever that means.

To Kitty’s horror, Anthony announces he is going to stay in France and the third person omniscient narrator with access to Anthony’s thoughts tells us, “Anthony sighed.  After he’d moved down here, he’d find a new partner for his sister.”  (p. 60)   Anthony’s plan to relocate to the Cévennes fires his imagination and he evinces a manic pleasure in imagining how he will recreate his former celebrity by settling himself in “some expensively restored, immaculately furnished house.”  I think I liked him better when he was depressed, and I didn’t like him much then, either.

Aramon accuses Audrun of a kind of trespass.  He says Audrun built her bungalow over the boundary of his land and he will be within his rights to tear it down to improve the salability of the Mas Lunel. 

One doesn’t read this book for the pleasure of spending time with the main characters: Anthony, Audrun, Aramon, Veronica, and Kitty.  They are all disturbing, pathetic, annoying, or some combination of these.  That Tremain manages to breathe life into them and make them psychologically convincing is an accomplishment, but hardly one that would make one clamor for an encore.

Three minor characters are exceptions: the Vialas—Marianne and Jeanne (mother and daughter), both friends of Audrun and Jeanne is Mélodie’s sympathetic teacher; and the stonemason Raoul Molezon, who once courted Audrun and later saves her life at great danger to his own. 

So what’s left?  Consider the book as a murder mystery.  A modern murder mystery, to be sure.  It has the requisite dead body found in the first chapter and the murder is revealed to the reader (albeit by the omniscient third person narrator) after suitable red herrings and complications.  For quite a while, we don’t even know who the victim was, and at the end we are left to ask if in any sense justice was done.  In a traditional murder mystery, there’s someone who gets a bee in his or her bonnet and who becomes obsessed with exposing the crime and the criminal no matter what.  In Trespass, there’s no detective, self-appointed or not (well, there’s a local police investigator, but he’s in and out of the story in a chapter or two).  The police are pretty much irrelevant.  There’s not much investigation.  We already know everything the police will find our before the police arrive on the scene and we know, by being privy to the murderer’s thoughts, things the police never discover.

Although the murder mystery is the only thing that justifies bringing this cast of characters together in a single novel, none of the dust jacket blurbs even mentions the words “murder” or “mystery”.  Two of them call the work a “thriller”, but that’s a rather weak catch-all. 

Audrun gets away with Anthony’s murder, but remarkably the identity of the victim is of no concern to her.  Thus, her crime is worse (if there may be said to be comparatives of evil) than if it had been a crime of passion directed at Anthony personally.  Nonetheless, the murder is a crime of passion directed against Aramon. Anthony’s murder is no more than a means to Audrun’s desired end, revenge against Aramon, and Aramon’s oddly Zen acceptance of life in prison calls into question whether Audrun in fact gets satisfaction from her revenge.

At the end, we’ve been through a story about a bunch of characters with profound, but curiously unmoving psychological problems and I, for one, was pleased to see the last of them.

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