Rose Tremain is eminent.
I remember selling many of her novels when I worked as a bookseller, especially after she won 2008’s Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel The Road Home. Indeed, she seems to have won almost every literary gong going. Her books are absolutely covered (to an almost farcical extent) with the kind of fawning praise that the literary press are so good at embarrassing themselves with; praise that is abundant with meaningless and unhelpful adjectives (“generous!”, “breathtaking!”, “dazzlingly brilliant!”).
I admit that I usually rail-against prize winning novelists and writers lauded by the press. When somebody is repeatedly forcing a new book upon me and telling me how great it is, my initial reaction is to shove it back in their faces in an act of instinctual distrust. I’m suspicious. I like to discover things in my own time, on my own terms. However, I am currently trying to rid myself of this reactionary and ostensibly juvenile approach to culture: and as such, what follows is my review of Rose Tremain’s BRAND NEW and BESTSELLING and BOOKER NOMINATED novel; Trespass.
Trespass is set in the Cévennes, southern France. The novel consists of two narrative threads which meet, cross, double-cross and become increasingly inter-twined as the story progresses. Firstly we meet Anthony Verey, a one-time famous, English antique dealer; he is sixty-four, miserable and addicted to rent boys. Anthony’s antique business has been on the verge of collapse since the onset of the current economic recession, and the novel opens with him leaving his lavish Chelsea home and travelling to France, to live with his sister while he searches for his ideal country mansion in which to live out his retirement.
The second story-arc concerns Audrun and Aramon Lunel; French siblings, also in their sixties. Audrun was raped throughout her life by her father and brother, but emerged from the experience an independent and opinionated – if a tad clichéd – ‘survivor’. Aramon, by comparison, has suffered a dramatic fall-from-grace since youth, and is now a violent alcoholic. The siblings are engaged in a life-long bitter rivalry over land, inheritance and the sale of the giant family home, the Mas Lunel. No prizes will be given for guessing how the lives of Anthony and the Lunel siblings collide…
So far, so promising. The three central characters couldn’t be more contrasting, each with their own selfishly demanding goals. Supplicating the conflict between these three protagonists are their back-stories – three turbulent narratives of past tragedies which, unfortunately, aren’t given the focus they deserve. This is where Trespass’ most obvious failing lies: the past histories of its characters make for much, much more interesting stories than the one the novel is actually telling.
Audrun’s past is one of paternal abuse, rape, retribution and redemption. Anthony’s past is scarred with doomed relationships, hidden homosexuality and a tragically un-reciprocated devotion to his mother; almost an Oedipus complex. These are the stories I want to read, these are the narratives that should have made up the novel; instead, they are given merely incidental reference. The story of an old man trying to buy a mansion from some feuding siblings is, by comparison, just dull.
There’s an unintended bathos that destabilises this novel: the past is a fault-line threatening to bring the superficial top-layer of this story to ruins – what happens beneath the narrative is vastly more engaging than the actual ‘plot’. While I praise Tremain for being daring enough to write a novel with an exclusively post-retirement age cast, it seems to me that the real drama of the book lies in the protagonists’ histories. I understand what Rose Tremain is trying to accomplish – a hidden history that jeopardises the present day is a standard trope of story-telling; in this case, however, the history is too interesting and the present (the bulk of the novel), is just a muted aftermath. Anthony echoes my sentiments with this charmingly articulated mid-novel protest:
“You have to let go of the past, darling.” She said.
“Why?” he replied, “I like it there.”
Similar to the narrative, the writing is also a two-sided coin; one which, unfortunately, is weighted in favour of the competent rather than the excellent. Most of the writing is merely adequate; it’s not stylised, but it gets the job done. There are, however, moments of expressive brilliance that tease us with what Tremain is capable of:
The world is so dull, thought Anthony. So cripplingly tedious. So full of all that you’ve met a thousand times before and which has never moved you and never will. Yet still it goes on…
I also admire the fact that Tremain doesn’t directly describe the more graphic and violent events: sex, rape and murder all occur, but they are “off-screen”, as it were; not part of the mise-en-scene of the narrative. With so many modern writers devoting so many words to detailed descriptions of rape and murder, it’s refreshing to find a writer like Tremain; one who recognises that long-winded and visceral descriptions rarely contribute to momentum or plot, and more-often-than-not stray dangerously close to unintentional farce and cliché. But, as I have said, Trespass’ high-points of stylistic excellence are few and far; separated by wide canyons of the mundane.
And so it is with every aspect of this novel. The characters have great back-stories, but uninspiring present-day ambitions. The writing has moments of beautiful expression, but is too often leaden with the uninteresting. Even the novel’s final moments – a shocking and imaginative revelation – is marred by the fact that I saw-it-coming a hundred pages in advance. Trespass is almost a very good novel, but it’s also close to being a very bad one. Every success is counter-pointed by a failure and the result is something that’s just middle-of-the-road. This ‘almost’ factor left me in an unusual emotional state: I felt a kind of frustrated indifference, torn between accepting the novel as it is, and longing for what it could have been.
So, is Rose Tremain still “eminent”? Maybe. Her reputation was established long before she wrote this novel, so it’d be unfair of me to judge her skill on this one book alone. Maybe this is a poor representation of what has gone before – she might have just phoned this one in. But let me finish by saying that my suspicions of the literary press and their prize-giving lap-dogs haven’t erred. Further research is needed.