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Clare F Hobba

Rose Tremain
Chatto and Windus, ISBN: 9780701177942

The 11th novel by the award-winning author Rose Tremain is a shade darker than most of her recent works. She has become known as one of the most reliable of today's English novelists, but she is also one who seeks variety, often sailing her writing into areas which involve considerable research, like Restoration England or 17th-century Denmark. Trespass, however, is set in the present day and in the Cévennes area of France and one feels that these choices have not troubled the author as much as some of her previous excursions in terms of  research.

In the Cévennes area of France, Audrun and Aramon, a sister and brother, are living on the now derelict farm where their ancestors once tended vines and raised silkworm. Local industries have been left high and dry and it is difficult now to make a living from the land - impossible for Aramon who has a serious drinking problem.

He decides to sell up, a callous act which will make his sister homeless. His potential buyer is Anthony Verey, a snobbish antiques dealer from Pimlico. Verey also finds that there is no market at the moment for his trade and too decides to sell up, and to set up house in the Cévennes near his beloved sister, Veronica. In doing so he trespasses on her happy relationship with her partner Kitty. The coming together of these five characters means that, like the Cévennes summer,  circumstances are now tinder dry, just waiting for the spark that will ignite them, and it is inevitable that a murder will take place.

Trespass has a real element of whodunnit, with a corpse being discovered in the first chapter, so we follow the book to discover the answers to two questions: who, from the five central characters becomes the corpse, and who the murderer. However, there is no stereotypical detective at work, although there are playful references to the fact that there could be.

Instead, the reader is given the clues and pursues the trail from the point of view of the different characters, each of them both a potential perpetrator and possible victim. The story unfolds steadily and convincingly rather than the solution being revealed as a deus ex machina at the end.

The theme, as declared by the title of the book, is trespass: trespass on land, trespass on the body, particularly the female body, trespass on relationships.  However, there is an underlying theme which is more novel and may perhaps be of more interest to a Third Way reader. It is the existential crisis one encounters when one reaches the end of working life and can just begin to view, in the distance, the approach of death. Both of the main male characters rush headlong into precipitate change, seeking to reinvigorate themselves with 'a fresh start',  fooling themselves that they might regain youthful vigour once more - a sort of post-mid-life crisis. The female characters are not thrown into such confusion, possibly because they are more adaptable, or do not see themselves solely in terms of their work. Certainly, each brother appeals to his sister to help him sort matters out.

As Christians, we may believe that intimations of mortality should spur us on to make our peace with God, and to take stock of our spiritual lives, but the male characters in Trespass have absolutely no sense of that, although the futility of their struggles is shown subtly through the conclusions that Verey reaches about the various houses that he views - too lonely, too far from friends, nobody to show off to. Tremain does not employ a Christian framework of beliefs in her work, but in Trespass, nature stands for what is good and eternal.  Audrun wishes only to be left to care for her land and to watch the processes of erosion and regrowth. Veronica is a gardener, and her salvation lies in making a garden. On the other hand, Anthony Verey is at odds with nature, rejecting one house because it is too close to the sky which will stare down at him mercilessly, a reference to feeling something like judgement.
It would be good to see more written about this post-midlife-crisis phenomenon for it is a point in life where it may just be occurring to those who have hitherto been blessed by prosperity and good fortune, that there is to be no escape from the eventual end of life. It is a time when they might be more receptive to Jesus' teachings.  

Trespass is an economical novel compared with some of Tremain's others.  It is beautifully written and elegantly edited, and manages to pack in vivid characterisations built on tragic family histories, and again, a description of a landscape and its role within the region's history. With its strong structure and interesting themes, it could be a textbook example of how to write a modern novel. For all that, it does not capture the imagination in quite the way that some of her others have, but it is undoubtedly an excellent read.

Clare F Hobba­