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Trespass by Valerie Martin

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Trespass deftly weaves tales of intruders and the people who fear them.


Publisher: Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 9780385515450
Author: Valerie Martin
Price: $25.00
Length: 304
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-09

Valerie Martin is a marvel. She takes us to such unexpected places, so elegantly, so deeply yet delicately, and with such unexpected insights.

She wrote Mary Reilly, the story of a housemaid in the Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde) home.

She wrote The Great Divorce, which examines splits of all kinds, including that of humans and nature. Among the characters is the Louisiana Cat Woman, who, legend says, transformed into a leopard and killed her husband.

She wrote Property, which won the 2003 Orange Prize. Its female narrator is given a wedding-present slave who bears a child by the narrator's husband. Everyone is harmed by owning, or being, property. Martin describes the novel as "a tour of hell with a guide who works for the management."

Trespass, as the title indicates, is about boundaries and those who cross them.

Chloe Dale is an artist preparing to illustrate Wuthering Heights and intrigued by the compelling and troublesome Heathcliff, whom she has decided must be a gypsy. Her husband Brendan is a historian on sabbatical, writing a book on Emperor Frederick II, a 13th century Norman potentate who reluctantly participated in a Crusade.

As the couple ponder these intruders, their son Toby introduces another more immediate one: Salome Drago, a Croatian refugee and college classmate he loves.

The women are instantly at odds. Salome is different from what Chloe expected, what she is used to, what she would want.

Salome is described as "like a jaguar among nervous chickens" and "as if she was raised by hyenas."

When Toby's attachment intensifies, his mother attacks: "'I thought you were smarter than this.' Yes, that too, and some warning about the future. About foreigners, people from an entirely different culture. About Catholics. `Is she even a citizen? Is she trapping you like this just to stay in the country?'"

Salome's family -- a father and brother; her grandmother, mother and a younger brother are lost to the war between Serbia and Croatia -- lives in Louisiana, where father Branko Drago is tagged the "Oyster King."

Chloe tags Salome "creepy" and focuses some of her unhappiness on another "foreigner," a man who hunts uninvited on the family land and may simply not understand the concept "posted." Zigor is a Basque who works as a plumber and speaks little English, a small man, "his skin weathered, grey, unhealthy."

Obsessing about stopping the hunter, Chloe complains publicly and frequently, even though she acknowledges a "murderer she loves," her cat, Mike, never thinking that Mike is always assured of a meal but Zigor likely is not.

Woven erratically into these domestic problems is another narrative, interrupting in italics with a story that expands into disaster: unhappy, educated city woman marries farmer, woman starts affair, paramilitary takes over town.

There are terrible mysteries attached to Salome's childhood, to the horrors of Serbian atrocities in Croatia. This narrative calmly and retroactively reveals a few of these mysteries, bit by bit.

Martin is so thoughtful, so intriguing, in how she interweaves and explores the beginning of America's war, the war between Serbia and Croatia, the domestic fires, petty moments and true evil.

Brendan, studying his unhappy wife, thinks, "She feels her territory has been invaded and she is under attack. She wants to throw the intruders out, go back to the way things were, but this, she must realize is not an option, and she's panicked."

The anonymous narrator, imprisoned with nine other young women, thinks, "War is a country; that's what I learned, and it always looks the same. The citizens share a culture, which is the culture of trying to save their necks. The soldiers have another culture, the culture of creating havoc. Suspicion is the currency; the economics are despair. I hadn't grown up in this country; I wasn't used to it."

The various trespasses, as in sins, and trespassing, as in unlawful entry or interference with people, property and rights converge. Some wrongs will never be righted. Some adaptations are made.

But Martin resists tying up all loose ends -- another of her laudable qualities.


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