A 10-year-old girl is on a school picnic. She has recently moved with her family from Paris to the countryside of southern France. Isolated and homesick, she acts out her sadness by running away from her teacher. Winding through trees and following a stream down to a natural pool, she decides to take a swim when something in the water catches her eye. She starts to scream. A grisly discovery is the first scene in Trespass, by Rose Tremain.
Next, we meet Anthony Verey. He used to be " the Anthony Verey," a prominent antiques dealer from Chelsea in London, but now, past his prime, he finds himself afflicted with a ridiculous tenacity to go on living, though he questions his own worth at every turn. Anthony decides to visit his sister, Veronica, who lives in southern France with her girlfriend, Kitty. The long views and the proximity to his sister suit him. Thinking this is the change he needs, he starts to search for a country house in the Cévennes.
Anthony visits an old stone farmhouse that has been passed down through generations of the Lunel family. It is owned and being sold by Aramon Lunel, a drunk who neglects his dogs, his laundry and his land. His sister, Audrun Lunel, lives in a small bungalow within sight of the main house. The Lunels' dark history is far too troubled to forget easily.
It doesn't take long for the reader to see how the members of the desperate cast, their cultures and class at odds, are set on a collision course. Like cars on a narrow Cévenol mountain road, the horrible crash is inevitable.
Trespass is Tremain's 11th novel. Her work has appeared on many bestseller and prize lists, the Booker and Whitbread among them. Her previous novel, The Road Home, about an Eastern European immigrant in London, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008. While that book contained a strand of hope, Trespass sends a much darker message about those who can't leave the past behind.
Each character is crisply defined. Intricate back-stories pave the way for future events. For example, while watching a surveyor check the boundaries of her property, Audrun, the sister in the bungalow, sprinkles black earth into his coffee, as this has "the power to quell her anxiety." [p. 117]/note> This odd behaviour is the perfect cue.
Similarly, Tremain fans the flame of past conflicts to show the complexity of the relationships between characters. Kitty, Anthony's sister's jealous lover, dreads hearing his voice. It reminds her of the posh people she heard as a, "skinny girl, helping to make beds and prepare breakfasts." [p. 49]/note> In turn, when Anthony asks Veronica to make a favourite meal from their childhood, she responds by telling him to let go of the past. "Why?" he asks, "I like it there." [p. 126]/note> At the heart of this dark and powerful novel is the question of how our past colours our present. Much of the unravelling of the mystery depends, for example, on who you believe is the best judge of Anthony. Does his sister, who has protected and loved him since childhood, know what he was thinking or how he might act? Or is Kitty, who only knows Anthony superficially, the better judge of his character? The author drops clues along the way.
Perhaps this is the only slight flaw with the book. Tremain is a writer in command of her craft. Her tight control of the two story strands threatens to stifle the second half of the book, as the solving of the mystery takes the primary position over her wise observations about human nature.
It is possible, then, to leave the past behind? Can we ever be truly free? As with the best novels, Trespass puts more emphasis on asking questions than providing answers. That said, given the character's intricate histories, the ending of the novel, while surprising, is also the only way that the story could have played out.
Claire Cameron's first novel, The Line Painter, was nominated for best first novel by the Crime Writers of Canada.