Trespass

Globalization and economic dislocation provided the circumstances for Rose Tremain's last novel, the Orange Prize-winning The Road Home. That was the moving and ultimately celebratory story of an economic immigrant to London, who had fled the destruction of the timber industry—and the collapse of the sole employer—in his native region of a former Eastern Bloc country. The dissolving effect of the global market on not only communities but the sanity of their inhabitants is behind events in Trespass, Tremain's ingeniously wrought new novel, a story of two pairs of siblings and a nice, juicy murder.

 

Set in southern France in the first decade of the present century, the novel is, in part, a story of affluent international desire, of the will to possess the substance and beauty of the past: not only works of art, but dwellings and landscapes themselves. One such place is Mas Lunel in the Cévennes, a stone farmhouse originally flanked by two extensions that sheltered farm animals and silk worms. They have been torn down, sold off as roof tiles and stones. Absent their buttressing support, the house has developed a growing fissure—as emblematic as anything could be of the disintegrating effect of destroying a traditional economy.

 

The owner of Mas Lunel lives there alone and in filth. He is Aramon Lunel, a slothful drunk who has, however, become suddenly animated by a real-estate agent's promise that the house and surrounding terraced vineyard will fetch 450,000 euros. While he revels in the idea of untold riches, his sister, Audrun, 64, lives an orderly if limited life in a jerry-built bungalow in sight of the house. A terrible past of abuse by both her unsavory father and brother has culminated in her being disinherited from her former home. Her brother's squalid existence revolts and pains her, but his blackest sin, worse in her mind than his failure to feed his caged dogs, is his neglect of the house.

 

With the fissure plastered over to merely cosmetic effect, a potential buyer emerges in Anthony Verey, brother to Veronica Verey, a garden designer living in France within sight of the Cévennes with her lover, Kitty, a water colorist. Anthony was once the leading antique dealer in London, but now, a jaded 64 years old, he feels diminished, just as, in his eyes, England is too: "It was as though the land had tired of the way its variety and complexity kept being ignored by man, and had decided to brand itself with just the few, dull species everybody would recognize. Fifty years from now, there would be only blackbirds and gulls and stinging nettles and grass."

 

All Anthony really cares about now are a few of his antique artifacts and these he calls his beloveds. Foremost among them is an eighteenth-century Aubusson tapestry depicting a group of stylish men and women lounging under the shade of a tree attended by servants. But some mischievous needle worker of yore has hidden an old woman in the foliage at the edge of the tapestry; here she watches the happy scene with a look of malevolence. This, you may gather, is a novel that is free with its portents.

 

Mas Lunel fills Anthony with desire: the house could be fixed up, its magnificent beams cleaned, a swimming pool added; it's perfect—but for the sight of Audrun's tacky bungalow. Sadly he reflects that "all the still-beautiful places were blighted by their nearness to some other thing you didn't wish to see or hear or have to think about. Audrun's feelings toward her brother become panicked hatred as he attempts to sell the house and raze her own, an eyesore and deal breaker. Visions of murdering him dance in her head.

 

And there are other murderous fantasies abroad. Anthony's reluctance to countenance the aesthetically unpleasing extends to his sister's lover, Kitty. She's unprepossessing, a lousy painter, and he doesn't like her at all. The feeling is mutual. Neglected by Veronica when Anthony's around, Kitty contemplates the possibilities of his accidental death.

 

An air of obliviousness to one's trespasses, an ignorance that is in some cases a form of innocence, pervades this novel. These people, whose lives and characters Tremain conjures up with real deftness and dispatch, are acting in a world that is increasingly unsatisfactory, economically and culturally, its material substance undermined by economic forces, its history marketed as a commodity. For a while it seemed a little curious to find the elements of a murder mystery spliced into what is a sophisticated work of fiction; in the end, it is immensely entertaining and ghoulishly satisfying.


Katherine A. Powers writes a literary column for the Boston Sunday Globe and writes about books and audiobooks in various other venues.

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