In Rose Tremain's new novel about two pairs of siblings battling over past injustices and a stone farmhouse in the south of France, misery loves company to a fault.
The introduction of every major character in Rose Tremain's Trespass comes at you in a manner designed to cause a wrinkle to the nose. These aren't evil people, for the most part, though they do precious little good that we can see. They are, however, a singularly amoral lot, knotted up with obsessions and cruelties – mostly of their own making but sometimes not – that blind them to the true needs of those around them.
This is a book whose opening scene pulses with a current of disgust at the physical world:
Mélodie is ten years old and she's trying to eat a sandwich. She prises apart the two halves of the sandwich and stares at the wet, pink ham inside, and at the repulsive grey-green shimmer on its surface. All around her, in the dry grass and in the parched trees, crickets and grasshoppers are making that sound they make, not with their voices (Mélodie has been told that they have no voices) with their bodies, letting one part vibrate against another part.
All this setting the mood for ten-year-old Mélodie to discover a corpse in a nearby streambed. There is little doubt that this moment won't be one that stays with Mélodie for the rest of her life, and become a kind of seed of disquiet whose roots will spread through her soul until she is as mean and small and rotten and everybody else in this novel.
Tremain's mysterious plot pivots on the impending sale of a sprawling old stone farmhouse in a rural part of southern France once known for silkworm farming but which has of late been infected by British and other foreigners looking for quaint old buildings to gut and rebuild into vacation fantasy dwellings. The mas in question, Mas Lunel, is inhabited by Aramon, a sour old drunken farmer, and his sister Audrun, a quiet woman who keeps to herself in a purpose-built shack on the grounds.
Aramon is looking to unload the crumbling pile onto the first rich sucker who comes along, no matter that he drinks himself into a grumbling stupor most nights and seems unable or unwilling to get the place into even remotely presentable shape. At the same time, Audrun panics, unable to imagine herself living in the outside world, and trembling toward some internal point of combustion due to a buried memory of a gruesome childhood trauma. The past sits on their land like a thick fog:
Audrun opened the chest and took out the Bible. She held it to her face for a moment, picking up – even now – the scent of her mother embedded in its cloth covers, then laid it aside. She stared at the heap of papers, sprinkled with woodworm dust, finer than fine-grained sand. This dust suggested to her that the papers hadn't been disturbed for a long while. Aramon never looked at the past, then, and no wonder. He was afraid to catch sight of himself in it.
More to the foreground of the story are a brother and sister pair from England, both imperious and impossible and impenetrable. Veronica is designer of gardens, currently working on a book called "Gardening without Rain". She lives with her lover Kitty (whom Tremain identifies as Veronica's "friend," as a way of noting Veronica's romantic ambivalence and closeted nature) in "a fine old stone farmhouse" in an area not too far from Mas Lunel "where the 21st century hardly seemed to have arrived and where Veronica went about her life in a mood of robust contentment."
Veronica's brother Anthony is introduced standing in his antique shop in London, where the sparkling strands of his once-glittering life are fraying. At one time a powerful personage of style on the London scene, Anthony's aura has dimmed, the once-baroque tastes of the upper class having moved on to other things, and left him abandoned in his shop surrounded by his carefully curated possessions, "his beloveds, as he called them." (All one needs to know about Anthony can be found in Tremain's repeated use of that Gollum-like incantation of his, beloveds.) Seeing no future for himself in London, Anthony – a terminally single type whose romantic taste runs to anonymous rent boys – decides to embark for France, planning to bunk with Veronica for a time while looking for a tasteful little chateau he can call his own.
Even before Anthony sets his sights on Mas Lunel, he runs afoul of the normally meek Kitty (who thought of her pre-Veronica self as "a kind of no one, a watery nonentity"), who sees her powerful love for Veronica practically ignored once the terminally spoiled Anthony shows up. The two are quite a pair, raised by a domineering mother who treated Anthony as the gilded prince of the manor, his every peevish disdain and whim indulged, and Veronica as the put-upon fat girl. Certain that she has no other course of action but to take care of her reality-challenged Anthony, Veronica makes sure that Kitty (a failing painter whom Anthony has always despised) knows her second-tier status.
Tremain bunches together all these strains of irksome foulness into a story that veers into the territory of a mystery novel, once a disappearance and the indication of long-buried crimes come to the fore. If it's a mystery, though, it's more in the mold of a Patricia Highsmith novel, not so much in her stories of calculating doers of casual evil but in the atmosphere of corruption and disquiet. Everyone is miserable here, and those who don't seem it at first (Veronica in her life of "robust contentment") are shown to be just papering over the trauma of themselves until it's inevitably ruptured wide.
Throughout, Tremain's writing is sure-handed and clear. But while her portraits of these uniformly miserable people might follow Tolstoy's dictum about how they are unhappy in different ways, the final effect is less enlightening than it is enervating. A stench of rottenness pervades these well-crafted pages, and given the gallery of stunted characters here it's no wonder. However, the lack of nearly any countervailing mood or personality flattens out the story, moving the reader less to empathy or understanding than to a desire to simply wrinkle the nose and turn away.