By Jane Smiley
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; C02
By Rose Tremain
Norton. 253 pp.
The ambitious and productive English novelist Rose Tremain sometimes writes about music (most notably in her 1999 Whitbread Award winner, "Music and Silence"), and, in fact, she reminds me of a classical composer in both her meticulousness and her scope. When I read a Tremain novel, whether it's set in Denmark, New Zealand, England or France, whether it's set in the present day or the 17th century, I simply do not disbelieve her details. Her research is so seamlessly woven into both the plot and the psychology of the story that I am convinced that, yes, this is the way it must have been, or must be.
Though somewhat better known for historical novels (such as "Restoration") than contemporary ones, Tremain won the Orange Broadband prize for her last work, "The Road Home," an upbeat tale of an Eastern European job-seeker who travels to England on a bus once the lumber mill where he has been working in his own country is shut down. As usual, "The Road Home" is nearly a guide to its milieu, and one of its pleasures is Tremain's witty portrait of the United Kingdom as seen through the often uncomprehending eyes of Lev, her protagonist. Lev's tale has a happy ending -- he takes what he learns in England back to his country and builds something hopeful there. Maybe "Trespass," also a contemporary work, ends happily, too, but that would depend on your definition of happy.
For "Trespass" is a Gothic novel, dark and eerie, set in the South of France -- not the sunny south around Nice, but the dour and secretive district of the Cévennes, mountainous and wild. "Fire and flood could come (and often did come) to sweep everything away," she writes. "But still the rain fell and the wind blew." The mood is established in the first chapter, through the eyes of a schoolgirl from Paris who cannot comprehend why her parents would trade the 9th Arrondissement of Paris for this. The region is beset by the end of agriculture, including such specialties as silkworm farming. Even vine-growing has become an iffy proposition, and this has resulted in the sale of many of the old farmhouses to tourists from abroad.
"Trespass" is a less expansive novel than "The Road Home," a string quartet rather than a symphony, but it excels in mood. After reading this novel, you will not be scouring the Web for your house in France.
It can't really be said that "Trespass" has a protagonist, but it does have several compelling and vividly drawn characters. Veronica Verey, an Englishwoman who has settled in the area with her lesbian lover, Kitty, is writing a book titled "Gardening Without Rain." Veronica's brother, Anthony, a famous and wealthy antiques dealer from London whose career is collapsing, comes for a visit, and by the way disdains Kitty's attempts at watercolor. On the other side, a secretive French farmer, Aramon, happens to have inherited the lovely farmhouse that he and his sister, Audrun, grew up in. Audrun has built herself an ugly modern shack nearby -- close enough to wreck the view, in the opinion of the fastidious Englishman.
The ensuing revelations move forward and backward. They are remarkable not so much in themselves as in how deliberately, carefully and suspensefully Tremain contemplates them. At one point, Aramon goes to the local graveyard ("almost full up") to confide in his father. He discovers that "the dead never responded to any living plea. They could, it seemed, arrange a confidential hour, but then when you whispered your longings to them and asked them to help you, they fell back to being inert and useless: just brittle branches, bare twigs, dust."
All of Tremain's characters are in late middle age; that they know they are coming to the end of their aspirations and, indeed, of their lives, presents them with dramatic dilemmas, but it does not mean that they have found either wisdom or peace.
The sinister mood of "Trespass" is considerably different from the social realist one of "The Road Home," showing once again that Tremain is as ambitious as her better known male compatriots. She seems ready to try any form, any style, even any worldview, but she is more controlled and more subtle than they are, a Haydn rather than a Beethoven. She disappears into the work, not readily revealing herself, except through her insights into characters, events and settings, and through her subtle wit (every time Anthony notices a beautiful object, he reflexively estimates its market value). Her happy ending is a realistic one for older characters -- a correcting of accounts, a modicum of mercy. With luck, "Trespass" will entice American readers to experience the riches and wisdom of Rose Tremain's large and varied body of work. She is a maestro.
Smiley is the author, most recently,