Trespass, by Rose Tremain

Purchased at Chapters.ca

In my review of Ian McEwan’s Solar a few months ago, I noted that both he and Martin Amis (The Pregnant Widow) had now passed 60 — and both had produced novels with central characters of the same age who were about to face the first of their “senior citizen” decisions. One had to wonder about how auto-biographical both novels were.

Rose Tremain has two legs up on those better-known authors. First, born in 1943, she has a half decade of extra life experience and observation — she is one of those rather rare “War Babies”, although the age difference is small enough that she almost qualifies as a Boomer. Tremain also has chosen to produce a 2010 novel that features characters of that same 60ish age who are facing rather large “life” decisions, although in her case not one but four, who come in two brother-sister pairs. And in prize-winning terms, she has a big edge: McEwan and Amis are already sitting on the 2010 Man Booker “dismissed” bench — Tremain’s Trespass bested them both by making the longlist.

I am certainly aware of Tremain (2008 Orange prize for The Road Home, shortlisted for the Booker for Restoration) but have never read her — the descriptions of her past novels were enough to convince me that they were “too conventional, not literary enough” for my tastes. So I was somewhat intrigued that this year’s Man Booker jury “imposed” her on my reading — and I was not disappointed.

Trespass is very much a novel centred on characters who have reached what may be the last decision point in their lives; the final time that they may be able to make an active choice about their future, with further choices determined as much by age and circumstance as by personal decision. While there is an element of desperation to that, there is equally an incentive to take a greater risk than has even been taken before. Consider Anthony Verey, one of London’s most successful antique dealers with a shop in Chelsea. The current recession has set him and his business on hard times (Trespass is a very contemporary novel) and the world is closing in on him. He is about to visit his lesbian sister, Veronica, at her self-imposed retreat in the near-desert of the south of France:

As he drove the hired black Renault Scenic north-west towards Ales, Anthony felt a radical new idea beginning to form in his mind. He congratulated himself that it wasn’t only radical, but also logical: if his life in London was over, then to regain his happiness all he needed to do was to admit that it was over and to dare to move on. He’d never imagined himself living anywhere else but in Chelsea, but now he had to imagine it. He had to imagine it, or die.

So, in its essence, the idea was simple and straightforward. He’d sell the flat and wind up the business. From the great emporium of beloveds, he’d keep only those pieces for which he felt extreme ardour (the Aubusson tapestry, for instance) and put the rest into appropriate sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

If you follow the auction world at all, Anthony is not an aberration — indeed, he is a harbinger of our times and there will soon be more versions of him putting their collections on the market. His decision to flee to Veronica adds much depth to the book. She has been living in France for some time with her lover, Kitty, a watercolor artist “rescued” from lower-class England. Veronica (“V” to Anthony since childhood) is both creating and writing Gardening Without Rain; Kitty thinks that she is painting the illustrations.

Anthony, who has been subject to being saved by his sister V since childhood — indeed, dependent on it — has turned to her once again:

“You know you’ve saved me, don’t you?” he said to Veronica that evening as they sipped chilled white wine in the salon.

“What do you mean?”, she said.

“London’s killing me, V. It literally is. I’ve thought about this a lot since I’ve been here, and now I’ve made a definite decision. I’m going to sell up. I should have done it two or three years ago. I’m going to be reborn in France.”

So there we have the well-bred, well-off Brits. The story demands that they have a local counterpart and that comes in the sister-brother pair of Audrun and Amaron Lunel, now in their sixties, local farming peasants with several generations of history in La Callune in the Cevennes. They have never left it and never intend to. But, just as Anthony and V have an historical attraction to each other that they cannot resist, Audrun and Amaron have an equally well-formed aversion (and a predictably shocking reason for it) that keeps them forever apart, he in the stone family house up the hill, she in the cheaply-built drywalled, modern residence down the way by the wood:

She hardly ever went inside his house — the house that had once been kept so clean and orderly by her beloved Bernadette [their mother]. The stink of it made her gag. Even the sight of his old shirts hanging out of the window to be washed by the rain, she had to turn away when she saw these, remembering Bernadette’s laundry chest and all the sheets and shirts and vests white as fondant and folded edge-to-edge and smelling like fresh toast.

Four characters on the verge of being “senior citizens”, in the form of two brother-sister pairs. Each of them facing perhaps the last fully self-determined life choice that they will make. Each twisted by their own relationships with their past, their mother (Freudian stuff is major in this book) and their sibling. Not one happy with their current status; not one totally comfortable with the decision they will make about their future.

Trespass is in some ways a thriller (the prologue indicates that, so that is not a spoiler) in the ways that these four eventually live out their dilemmas. Having said that, the strength of Tremain’s novel is not that obvious plot, but rather the way she explores how these four individuals address their looming “old-age”. While I think both McEwan and Amis opted for satire and aversion, I’ll give Tremain credit for addressing the issue head on.

The problem is that I don’t think she does it very well. The set-up for the story was more than interesting — all four central characters are well-established and I felt genuine empathy for their circumstances. But as the plot line unfolds, they become more and more caricatures and less and less characters — the strength of the novel has been those four and not the action, but the action is allowed to overtake it. One cannot help but wonder if Tremain returned to the form that has served her so well (and kept me from reading her) rather than letting the creative forces take her where they may.

The result, I must say, is a highly readable book but, like so many others on my Booker list of 2010, one that hardly goes beyond the ordinary. As it stands, I would call it an excellent holiday book — with only a little more effort, at least for me, it could have been so much more. Okay, I am a 62-year-old male so I do fit the fictional demographic of the central characters of the book and that probably softens my critical assessment. Having said that, with McEwan and Amis already weighing in, I am pretty sure I will be seeing a number of other versions of this in the near future — and I think that I and the rest of those on the front edge of the Baby Boom are still waiting for the “defining” novel of what it is like to be approaching what used to be the retirement age.

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20 Responses to “Trespass, by Rose Tremain”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    I agree with you on this one, Kevin. It’s been a few months since I read it so this is a good reminder of what happened in the book. I think the renewed memory of it is better than it seemed while reading. Though I read it as Booker speculation, I really did not think it would make the list.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: On occasion — perhaps one out of ten, maybe one out of twenty — the process of writing a review of a book makes me realize that it was much better than I originally thought. I only left four or five days between finishing reading this book and writing the review, but I must admit at that point I found it a better book than I had originally thought. I would be surprised to see Trespass make the shortlist, but I certainly don’t find it misplaced on the longlist.

  3. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Living in France as I do, I know I’ll want to read this one Kevin if only to check up that the `feel’ of French life is one I recognise. Interesting what you say about the caricatures as I felt the same about some of the characters in her previous novel The Road Home. There was a scene in that novel involving a group of young media types that felt almost embarrassingly bogus. I was disappapointed by the Booker long list as there didn’t seem to be any books that promised to be a really exciting and challenging read. However I didn’t like Wolf Hall either. I seem to be very hard to please these days – is that a sign of increasing age? ( I’ve been reading a book a week for 45 years now). I’m finding returning to previous authors I’ve loved – like Patrick White or George Elliot is proving more rewarding that reading recent fiction.

  4. Lee Monks Says:

    Kevin, a superb review, and I think you share my misgivings with Tremain. I will (if you’re going to read it) be interested to read your thoughts on Room and The Finkler Question.

    Furthermore, may I thank you for pushing me in the direction of The Portrait Of A Lady (not that I should need it really, my shame) quite recently. What can I say? It’s in your top ten, I believe. I absolutely understand that. A few pages in, I was mocking myself for my procrastination re: James.

    Mary, I found parts of Wolf Hall exquisite and really quite brilliant. But they were few and far between, so I have to concur overall. But the book has had a staggering reception from most, so I’m happy to be in a serious minority with yourself on this occasion.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve read two Tremain novels in the past and had mixed experiences with them. The Road Home, which won the Orange Prize, was nothing particularly special, and then went completely soppy and Maeve Binchy-like in the latter half. But Music & Silence was an exquisite look at King Christian IV of Denmark’s reign and I rate it as one of the best books I’ve ever read. Be interesting to know where this one fits in the grand scheme of things…

  6. whisperinggums Says:

    I have yet to read Tremain too. I thought she had a more literary bent to her but clearly she’s more mixed than that. I love your comment Kevin about books for the new age we baby-boomers are moving into. It will be interesting to see.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I was impressed with the way that Tremain established her characters but felt that it doing that she actually wrote herself into a bit of a hole — a rather clumsy action development was the only way to bring them together. I don’t know France well (the blurb says Tremain does know this part of France) so I can’t comment on that and will be interested in your thoughts. I did think she did quite a good job on the London collectors scenes. As for this year’s Booker, I am thinking that there is a group on the jury who seems to like pretty conventional, “soft” novels (like this one) that I find okay to read, but not much more. Having said that, I have three to go that I think are more challenging (Galgut, McCarthy, Murray) so I may just be hitting the “easy” ones first.
    I also am a “re-reader” — I would guess that between a quarter and a third of my reading is revisits (although that tends to happen in the October to February period when there aren’t many new books coming out).

    Lee: Thanks for the compliment. Both The Room and The Finkler Question arrived yesterday (when I also finished Galgut, which will be my next post — it is excellent). Jacobson will be next up, I think. And I am happy to read that your introduction to James’ “big” books is going well.

    Kim: She definitely has some strengths — i.e. Mrs. KfC and I collect art and I found the London scenes about his collecting and dealing to be very good. On the other hand, the style in this book of developing parallel stories meant they eventually had to be brought together and that is where I think it floundered. It is the only Tremain I have read so I won’t even attempt to place it in her body of work.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    WG: I certainly don’t think we have seen the last “what is it like to be looking at 65?” novel. Actually, I’m thinking of setting aside a whole shelf for them.

    I do find the three takes from these established authors interesting. Amis is mainly about looking back at what produced him — his central character, even in the present, is very much a product of the past. McEwan is best when he locates his character in the present, where he wanders around not quite up to what is happening now. While I don’t think Tremain’s book is as ambitious as the other two, in many ways she is much better on her exploration of the aspects of the “aging” dilemma — her four older characters are all going in different directions.

    I am hoping the “literary sisters” (Byatt and Drabble) do explore this territory, given their different views of fiction. It would be an excellent compare/contrast exercise.

  9. Tom C Says:

    Well, I think I need to read that one. I admire RT greatly, but found The Road Home not up to her usual standard – it almost seemed more Maeve Binchy than RT and I was disappointed. From your review, it sounds like this one may be worth a go, but as a 61 year old male perhaps I don’t match the target demographic too closely! I am about to read the The Slap and The Finkler Question. That may give me my fill of Bookers for now

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom C: I do hope you decide to try this one. Yes, you are part of the age demographic that fits — and Anthony’s decision to abandon his antique shop is not unlike the choice that you (and I) made about doing what we want instead of earning a salary. You also “know” France from a visitor’s point of view and, I suspect, some of Tremain’s scenic descriptions are going to mean more to you than they did to me. I don’t say that you will find it to be a great book, but I think it fits a lot of your interests. Without giving too much away, one of my biggest disappointments was that Tremain let’s the Anthony strain of the story (which, selfishly, interested me most) go so that she can develop the action stream of her plot.

  11. Guy Savage Says:

    I join the queue of those who haven’t read Tremain, but this one sounds interesting for the decision made by one character to pack up and move to France. It smacks of trouble to come, so I will read this one in the future.

    Has anyone read the novels of Louis Sanders? (They focus on British ex-pats living in France).

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I haven’t read Louis Sanders but will research him. I am more familiar with British writers exploring the same subject in Italy (Barry Unsworth and Tim Parks come to mind). When recounted with the proper sense of humor, it is a very entertaining genre. Tremain in this book is after something quite different, but there are elements in this book which do speak to that same experience.

  13. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ve read 3 Louis Sanders (English versions). All three take a look at the British ex-pat experience from different angles. The idea underlying all 3 novels is that the characters are ill-prepared for the huge changes they have made. The British community clings together and people find themselves mingling with others they wouldn’t have been seen dead with back in Britain as they really have little in common (except the fact they’re British).

    Another point the novels make is that far away from home, some people have a tendency to ‘recreate’ themselves and their pasts.

    I just read Loving Roger by Tim Parks and loved it so much I bought a couple of other titles.

  14. Lisa Hill Says:

    I have to disagree about The Road Home. I thought it a fine book, tackling a topic that none of us like to think about much. See http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/the-road-home-by-rose-tremain/
    But (a-hem) maybe that’s my demographic LOL!

  15. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I must try and track down Louis Sanders. Guy’s quotation and description of ex- pats `mingling with others they wouldn’t have been seen dead with back in the UK ‘ made me laugh it was so true and apt. On the other hand having lived here in France for six years I will say that it’s been an interesting experience not to mix only with Guardian reading teachers (my habitual circle in the UK – being one myself. ) If you want to get the flavour of ex-pat life and have the time to browse take a look at the Anglo-Info Brittany web site. Here you can find numerous examples of some of the ex-pat viewpoints. One recent thread was whether it is a good idea to have mail order deliveries of Tesco food – quite a few people here find the lack of Fray Bentos steak pies and salad cream a distinct deprivation!

  16. Guy Savage Says:

    Mary: I think in one of the books, a character gets all nostalgic for marmite. Sanders seems to have written quite a few but I’ve only been able to find three in English:

    An Ignoble Profession, The Englishman’s Wife and Death in the Dordogne.

    In one book, a British man buys a house in France and stumbles into a decades-long feud between his neighbours. In another, a British couple move to France for the infamous ‘fresh start’ and in the third, the British ex-pats panic when a blackmailer starts sending notes.

  17. Isabel Says:

    Re: Senior Citizen Books -
    You might have detected the new trend. Many authors born in the 1940s wrote about things that they did when they were younger. But as the audience grows older, the authors are writing about things in their current lives. Spending too much time in the past can depress the audience.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: Not only that but the people who have been reading them for several decades (that would be me) are also approaching this milestone (and probably have the money to spend on the books). I don’t think we have seen the last “oh my, I’m in my 60s” novel.

    And I’ll probably buy them all. Thankfully, there are a lot of younger authors out there writing as well.

  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    As a list, the Booker this year seems long on readability and short on challenge. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

    This sounds ok, but I have to much to read for ok to really cut it. Still, I look forward to your reaching C Kevin.

  20. Anne-Nicole Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    This comment is completely un-related to your most recent post, but I see you are going to write a review on Emma Donoghue’s Room soon-I absolutely loved this book, and I can’t wait to see your comments on it!

    A-N

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