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.