Trespass is a book you probably haven’t heard of, by an author you probably haven’t heard of. Rose Tremain has written 15 books, many of them award winners or nominees (Whitbread Awards, Booker Prize, and Orange Prize). Her best known work is Restoration, a historical novel about a 17th century physician that was made into a movie with Robert Downey Jr. in 1995. I really enjoyed Restoration, and was expecting something similar when I picked up this book. What I got was very different but just as compelling.
Trespass takes place in present-day Southern France, in an area called Cevennes. It’s about two pairs of siblings, both with troubled family pasts who are trying to move forward.
Audrun and her brother Aramon Lunel own land and a family home in Cevennes. Audrun, however, lives in a small bungalow erected in the shadow of the home, the Mas Lunel. Anthony Verey, in London, is a formerly-successful antiques dealer. He adores his treasures but has no one in his life besides his sister, Veronica. All of these characters are in their sixties but in many ways are still locked in their pasts.
Anthony becomes depressed because of his failing business and consequent lack of status in his community, realizes his life is fairly empty, and turns to his sister for help. He comes to France to visit her and decides he wants to stay. Veronica lives with her partner, Kitty, who is immediately resentful (and almost fearful) of Anthony’s intrusion in their lives. Kitty’s resentment is selfish but not entirely unjustified. Since childhood, Veronica has made it her life’s work to take care of Anthony, to make up for the neglect of their mother. Anthony decides to look for a home in France – he has extremely high tastes, unclear finances, and is not terribly practical, so Veronica and Kitty help him in his search.
Veronica and Anthony’s relationship, and its impact on Veronica’s relationship with Kitty, is troubling but not uncommon. However, it’s clear from the beginning that Audrun and Aramon have a much darker history. They hate each other but seem unable to leave each other. Audrun is devoted to the land and content to live under the dominion of a clearly abusive brother. We find out, for example, that Aramon told Audrun when she was a very young girl that not only was she adopted, but that her mother was a whore and her father a Nazi. You know from that point that there is something very troubled in a brother who would hurt his sister like that. Aramon also keeps a pack of hunting dogs penned up that he periodically forgets to feed or care for; their presence throughout the book is haunting.
Aramon seems to be some combination of mentally ill, sick, or drunk. He decides to sell the house, which he owns, and threatens to knock down Audrun’s bungalow as well. The French in the region are nervous about a wave of English tourists coming to buy homes in their area and driving up prices, but Aramon is only thinking about making a profit. Audrun, on the other hand, is absolutely devoted to the land and is devastated at the thought of having to leave, or of having a stranger living over her. Even though that stranger may well be an improvement over her brother.
The story is framed with the story of a ten year old girl, Melodie, who moves to Cevennes when her father takes a new job. Melodie is devastated to leave Paris and does not adapt well to the new area. Her classmates, feeling immediately that her love of Paris means she is putting them down, are cruel to her. Melodie has a traumatic experience in the beginning of the book that is only explained at the end. But she is also a vivid example of the traumas of childhood; in this case the need for home and stability. It’s not clear why she hates Cevennes so much but it is clear that someone needs to address her needs.
The term “trespass” is first used in reference to people’s encroachment upon the land that Audrun so treasures:
In one season, the burned or washed limestone could be green again. Then in the autumn gales, in the drenching rains falling under Mount Aigoual, berries and seeds fell onto the lichen and took root. Box and bracken began to grow there, and in time wild pear, hawthorn, pine and beech. And so it went on: from naked stone to forest, in a single generation. On and on.
Except there could be trespass.
“People can come and steal from you, Audrun,” whispered her mother, Bernadette, long ago. “Strangers can come. And others who might not be strangers. Anything that has existence can be stolen or destroyed. So you must be vigilant.”
She’d tried never to cease this vigil.
Trespass is not subtle but wonderfully layered. The story is simple, haunting, and powerful, and while you’re reading it that’s what you’re thinking about. Then you put it down and start thinking about the title and all the different meanings Tremain brings to a simple word. Trespass refers, at different times, to the encroachment of foreigners (the English in France); the encroachment of family upon relationships; the childhood betrayals of parents and siblings; and our need to create a space around us that makes us feel safe, and what happens when those spaces are threatened.
Tremain’s prose is beautiful, and while the story starts out slow, it builds until you can’t stop reading. For a little while I had no idea how all these characters related to each other and where the story was going. Then it all comes together. I highly recommend this book but be warned – this is not a light read.