19 August 2010
Or Whose head is it anyway? In the first three chapters we’re with three different people, who don’t seem connected in any way. They aren’t connected with one another, and to some extent they aren’t connected to the world they live in – Melodie, the unhappy Parisian girl cruelly (she thinks) transplanted to the middle of nowhere in the south of France; Anthony Verey, the 64-year-old antiques dealer just beginning to realise his life is becoming meaningless; and Audrun, a native of (I think) the bit of France where Melodie now is, also 64 and wishing there was more in her life than her older brother who has been horrible to her since they were children.
Themes emerge, as they do. There’s childhood – Anthony remembers with a nostalgia bordering on fixation the only time he was ever happy and Audrun muses on how for years her brother persuaded her she was adopted, that her father was a German soldier and her mother was a collaborator. There’s alienation: Audrun we know about; Anthony has just about given up on the rent-boys he’s taken to his bed for years, and now only cares for his ‘beloveds’, the goods in his once famous shop; Melodie can’t believe she’s stuck a million miles from Paris, surrounded by kids who only seem to know about stuff she doesn’t care about, like silkworms for God’s sake. It’s no wonder she goes off for a walk and a swim. (She sees something from the corner of her eye at the end of Chapter 1, looks at it properly, screams – and Tremain has left her story alone ever since.)
Siblings are another theme, and we’ve met a couple of them. Anthony’s sister, he likes to think, is the only person he has any affection for. She’s gay as well, living – guess where – with Kitty, a mousy watercolourist. Strangely, in their sections it’s Kitty’s head we’re inside, soon dreading the arrival of the arrogant brother: he thinks all he needs to do to get his head straight is spend time with his favourite sister in the wonderful light and air of southern France. Maybe, he thinks as he gets off the train, he should sell up and move down there as well. And coincidentally, Audrun’s horrible brother Aramon is just about to sell his place too, a solid-looking farmhouse he inherited when she got the land. We immediately wonder if that’s the place Anthony will buy, no doubt with disastrous results: Audrun’s just seen the deep crack that has appeared in the front of the house.
That’s another theme: the ravages of time. Anthony has had to give up ‘his boys’ because he can’t get it up any more; at dinner before he leaves for France, we get inside the head of his best friend – i.e. someone he plays status-envy games with – just long enough to be there when he discovers he has an incontinence problem serious enough to stain his trousers; and Aramon, while gleaning firewood in her forest, wheedles his way into getting Audrun to help him sort out some things in the house that are becoming too much for him.
Barrel of laughs? No. Sympathetic characters? Hard to tell. Anthony is presented with almost no redeeming features – he’s materialistic, self-centred, and his main pleasure seems to be Schadenfreude. (He’s depressed because he can’t find anybody among his peers doing less well than he is.) Audrun? Possibly – although, like Kitty, her role seems to be shaping up to be the one who is put upon by a character we don’t like. Veronica, or V, Anthony’s sister? She’s a semi-retired garden designer who it’s hard to care about. Melodie? Tell you when Tremain stops teasing and gets back to her story.
Same. I’ve begun to wonder whether the thing that Melodie sees at the end of Chapter 1 is a dead body – and that we won’t return to her story until the end of the novel. (Her chapter is in the present tense, and is set in midsummer. The others are in the past tense, starting in early spring, so there’s a whole novel’s-worth of seasonal change catch up on.) Some elements of satire are developing – I’ll come back to them – as the two put-upon characters are contemplating murder. Audrun seems quite serious about it, thinking that she might go for the enema overdose option. Kitty isn’t so far down this path, but it’s becoming clear that her life will never be the same again as long as Anthony is alive and living near them. Tremain is slowly (and predictably) getting him to the point at which he’ll buy Audrun’s brother’s place. Aramon has had the crack plastered over but, via Audrun, Tremain isn’t letting us forget how deeply structural the damage is. Their horrible father demolished two supporting wings of the house decades ago, and he fits into another emerging theme: how your parents fuck you up.
Satire? I’d be more certain of this if there were any laughs. (I had a similar problem with Tremain’s previous novel, The Road Home, in which some of the minor characters are metropolitan celebrities – an artist, a playwright, a chef – and they’re so clunkily sent up it just feels amateurish.) There are certainly plenty of nasty people you’d like to see brought down a few pegs, but nothing about them is funny. Anthony’s Schadenfreude is getting worse, and he’s quite open with himself that he wants to destroy the relationship between his beloved V and the mediocre Kitty. Aramon is a monster in even cruder ways: Audrun’s jerry-built bungalow is an eyesore that isn’t helping to sell his house, and he’s threatening to bulldoze any parts that strayed on to his land during the rather haphazard building of it. V, when we get a chapter from her point of view at last, is revealed as something of a bully herself. She very robustly lets Kitty know that Anthony comes first: it’s clear from a story she tells of their childhood that she controls Anthony by letting him make mistakes and then rescuing him. (She appears not to know that she does this.) It’s exactly what she’s done with Kitty, rescuing her from a second-rate life and transposing her into an idyll. It’s no wonder that Kitty walks off in desperation after a gruesome restaurant meal with the sister and brother, in a place she’s loved until now.
The legacy – sometimes literally – of parents is just as gruesome. For Melodie in the first chapter, it’s her father’s promotion that has landed her in the back of beyond. For Audrun most of her problems are her detested father’s fault, like leaving her the wood and Aramon the house, adding to the chasm dividing the siblings. For good measure, Tremain hints at incest: after her mother’s death Audrun’s father makes her try on underwear, and he fondles her breast…. Throughout her life she’s suffered from blackouts, and it turns out that the first was triggered by this episode. And then there are the Brits’ parents: father always away on business, mother (if it is their mother – V calls her by her Christian name) self-centred and useless. Anthony’s golden childhood memory is of pleasing this woman; V’s is of her destroying Anthony through her appalling behaviour on one of his birthdays, tearing his self-esteem to shreds. (V could have helped him, but waited until he needed rescuing instead. Powerful thing, control.)
Anything else? Only, well, I still don’t like anybody. Even the rather dull Kitty and Audrun have their dark sides: Kitty has her own anaemic version of Schadenfreude whenever she sees Anthony looking uncomfortable or, even better, scared; and Audrun really does want her brother dead, painfully if necessary. Anyway. How will these five unattractive people come together, apart from in the likely sale of the house? Will the two mousy ones help one another? Will Audrun contrive to get the house to fall in on Anthony and V, so that she and Kitty can spend their lives without men, possibly together? (I’m not expecting this.) And how bothered am I?
April, and the misery carries on. As expected, Anthony goes to see Aramon’s house, falls in love with it – and then has his idyllic vision spoiled, not so much by the ugly bungalow getting in the way but by Kitty, who is the one to point it out to him. Whether or not this is Schadenfreude on her part, Anthony decides it is and hates her even more. And Aramon hates his sister even more when he finds out why Anthony isn’t going to buy.
Not a huge amount happens otherwise, although we get more of their back stories. The incest in Audrun’s family turns out to be predictably horrible: both her brother and her father visited her bed as often as they liked for 15 years. It’s logical to keep it in the family, her father says; Audrun decides he involved her brother to create an accomplice, somebody to share the guilt. The legacy of it is that neither the sister nor brother can ever contemplate other serious sexual partners – Aramon was prone to blackouts of his own after his sexual encounters with his sister – although he is later investigated for the murder of a prostitute he visits twice a week after his own incestuous sex-life ends with their father’s death. For Aramon, nothing else ever comes close.
The abuse in the Verey family is less overt. Anthony’s mother continues to be useless, and traumatises him for life – he can only ever fall asleep after hours of struggling – by sending him away to boarding school. We find this out one evening after they’ve visited one of V’s super-rich clients. Anthony has been obsessing about the photo of their ‘beautiful’ 20-something son ever since, and Tremain takes a short cut by comparing him with Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice. We also find out he feels terrible guilt for taking a nap in the car when he was supposed to be sitting with his mother as she lay dying. And we find out that this adored woman was horrible to V as well, routinely insulting her cleverness and weight problem. Anthony remembers laughing at one of his mother’s put-downs and feeling immediately mortified. The adolescent V pretends not to have noticed either the insult or Anthony’s reaction. Yeh, sure.
The surveyor comes to check whether Audrun’s house encroaches on to her brother’s land. There’s no way to tell, but the encounter leads to one of her blackouts and, later, more thoughts of how she might murder Aramon as he talks about buying her out. A friendly neighbour of hers offers her a room if she needs it, but that’s no good in the long term: Tremain decides to remind us that these French country people care a lot about the land they’ve had in the family for generations. (Even the newspaper has a report of the mayor contemplating a quota system for the sales of houses and land to foreigners, which causes Aramon to start panicking a bit. He needs to sort things out fast.) The friend has a daughter who teaches a class of difficult children. She can’t stop them bullying the Parisian girl with the ridiculous name – guess – whose parents don’t seem to care enough about her. The southerners must think they’ve lost touch with where they really belong – which Melodie hasn’t, obviously.
So, nothing much new except for these damaged people seeming ever more similar to one another as they become ever more bitter about their soiled lives. Now, Kitty and Anthony have both driven off, she to try to get a gallery interested in her pictures, he to look at a house so remote he fears he’ll get lost on the way. For a time we are with V, waiting for a call from either of them. She’s very brusque with Kitty when she eventually calls late in the evening, half-drunk and in tears. (We guess why before the self-centred V does.) Anthony? He should have been back by the early evening, but we haven’t seen him since he was buying the Camembert sandwich at lunchtime: he’s too squeamish to buy unrefrigerated salami…. But hang on a minute, haven’t we heard about the dangers of unpasteurised cheese earlier in the novel?
(I’ve given up on the idea that this is satire. Which means, I suppose, that we’re supposed to take these damaged, trespassed-upon people (ho-hum) seriously.)
Last time, I was saying how not much happens. Suddenly, now, it does. And the book has turned into the mystery/thriller it was always going to be. I don’t know why I get so hung up on genres – why should it matter what kind of novel it is? – but whenever this sort of thing happens I never like it. I thought Tremain’s purpose was a serious psychological exploration of what love is, how its basis might often be grounded in self-centredness, how threats to it might appear like a trespass upon territory that people feel belongs only to them. Tremain genuinely is concerned about these matters, and I’ll come back to them in a bit. But Anthony’s disappearance, and the way the narrative is inviting us to guess who is responsible and why, seems like an add-on. It just feels contrived.
Plot summary. The disappearance has debilitatingly got in the way of Kitty’s relationship with Veronica. (Her full name is the real woman that Kitty feels she knows, while ‘V’ is the overbearing, often selfish person she can be. V, of course, is the Vereys’ family nickname for her.) V can’t deal with the disappearance; she genuinely believes she has always been Anthony’s protector, that he wouldn’t have survived into adulthood without her, and she can’t get over her failure to protect him now. She decides that Kitty’s attempts to comfort her through sex are a kind of violation of her own grief, and starts to push her away. Kitty realises that that’s how it is, sleeps outside the house alone, and V more or less confirms to her that she will just have to live with the fact that this thing is bigger than both of them. Kitty contemplates leaving, and we have the irony of Anthony having apparently succeeded in driving a wedge between them.
Meanwhile, things have moved fast between the other sister and brother. One or other of them – Tremain isn’t confirming which one, because this is a thriller now – has fired off two cartridges from Aramon’s shotgun. Audrun has more or less succeeded in persuading Aramon that it must have been him: he’s falling apart, mentally and physically, and is beginning to believe he must have done it during one of his ever more frequent blackouts. And he’s discovered Anthony’s car in the barn, partially hidden under tarpaulins and other bits and pieces. We notice that Audrun doesn’t comment, just feeds in lines about how, surely, he must remember when Anthony came that second time, how he must have shot him. But we know, because Tremain has told us, that recently Audrun was incredibly careful to scour herself clean and launder all her clothes thoroughly; that whoever fired the shotgun left the spent cartridges in – something Aramon never does; that she appears confident that Aramon won’t be living in the house for much longer…. and so on.
In other words, as spring has turned into summer, she appears to have transformed herself from a victim fantasising about revenge into a calculating manipulator perfectly capable of cold-blooded murder and a kind of psychological terrorism. I say ‘appears’ because it’s the nature of this sort of narrative to leave things ambiguous. Aramon finds the car-keys, possibly planted by his sister, and opens up the car. He’s greeted by an appalling smell – but it’s a tease: it turns out to be the sandwich Anthony bought all those days or weeks ago. (I guessed – but then, it wasn’t difficult.)
We wonder about what is making Aramon fall apart so fast. Does he suffer these gut-wrenching pains and blackouts because Audrun is poisoning him slowly? He also forgets to feed or water his dogs for so long that one of them dies, and the others tear at its body in desperation. Tremain has given Audrun a motive, and spends time building up the enormity of the wrong she suffered. We get further horrible details of the incest, and confirmation of what has been hinted at before: Audrun could have married a local man if she hadn’t felt polluted by ‘what she had done’. Maybe at last she’s realised where the guilt really lies, and that cold-blooded killing isn’t merely justified, it’s the right thing to do. I’m hoping I’ve got it wrong, because I don’t believe any of it.
One last bit of plot. We’re well into the last quarter of the book now, and Audrun’s friend’s daughter wants to bring her class to the farm. It’s nearly the end of term, the Mistral has been doing its worst for chapters now – it features heavily in Chapter 1 – and it’s almost time for Melodie to stumble upon whatever it is that makes her scream. Anthony’s body, surely – although there’s time for at least one more death. If it is Anthony, he isn’t necessarily the victim of murder: V has told a story of how he contemplated suicide on the morning of his wedding to a person of the wrong sex. But why does Audrun have that worried look on her face as she contemplates the heatwave that is lowering the level of the river almost daily? What’s under the surface? (Guess where Melodie is when she sees what she sees.) It really is as melodramatic as I’m making it sound, and I’m wondering whether it might be a sign of the times in publishing in the 21st Century. Perhaps even a respected, prize-winning author of art-house fiction has to spice things up a bit to be guaranteed a deal these days.
Chapter 35 to the end
Nothing unexpected – which, surprisingly, doesn’t detract from the final effect: I liked these last few chapters more than almost anything that had gone before. Ok, Tremain has given one of her main characters an unfeasibly easy ride: Audrun really has got rid of the threat of the house sale by killing the buyer, and there are no hitches in her fairly elaborate plan to point the finger at her brother. In case we have our doubts about the psychological games she needs to play with the police inspector, well, she’s seen a lot of crime movies on tv, knows how to act innocent. Tremain even has her comparing the copper with the cinema stereotype, has her imagining instructions from a director. This is all hokum, but I was used to the idea by the time we get the long flashback to the details of the murder and the way she covers her tracks. And once she’s got this over with, Tremain can get back to the interesting stuff: the apparent impossibility of selfless relationships in the little worlds she has created in the Home Counties and the Cervennes.
The heads we’re inside for most of these chapters are those of the two sisters, and the patterning that has been going on throughout the novel becomes even more evident. They are both left with nobody, and Tremain wants us to see that this is an inevitable consequence of patterns set up in childhood. Audrun’s aloneness is confirmed in two short conversations. She visits her brother in jail, and he is mystified by her gift of a branch of cherry blossom. She’s picked it to evoke a non-existent time of innocence before the sexual abuse began, but he just sees it as a reminder of a life he has been able to turn his back on. (We’ve even had a brief chapter from his point of view, in which we see how prison life suits him perfectly.) Her other conversation is with Raoul, the man she might have married long ago. He seems ready to rekindle an old spark, but she stops him before he can get started.
Veronica is also left with nobody. A bitter postcard joke from Kitty – ‘At least somebody loves me,’ referring to a tourist photo of her with a koala – confirms what we already know: that Veronica hasn’t ever loved her. At the funeral, V tells Lloyd, the nearest thing Anthony ever had to a friend (not very near, as we saw early on), that she used to love her horse far more than she’s ever loved any person. He sees that it’s true: now he’s the one to make a joke (‘Love at first sight!’) when she strokes and fondles the head of a horse conveniently nearby in a field. In a possibly unique moment of insight, she admits that her over-protective relationship with her brother was probably ultimately damaging to both of them. Tremain even lets her speculate that his plan to live in France – to be near her – is what ultimately leads to his death.
I wonder whether Tremain knew from the start that the novel would end with these damaged women and their terrible losses. She makes it a loss not only of relationships, but of an important idea of place. It’s been a theme throughout: Audrun proudly boasts that the house and its land have been in the family for three generations, and her unlikely murder of the incomer makes sense, at least at a symbolic level. V has tried to make a different bit of this alien land her own. She’s even been writing a book, Gardening Without Rain, now abandoned – as is her French garden, destroyed by the ravages of the Mistral as surely as the Mas is by fire. At the funeral, when she really does seem to be looking at herself properly for the first time, she admits that all her dreams are of English gardens. Lloyd suggests how easy it would be for her to move back to Hampshire, and I bet she does. It will be as though she had never been in France, just as the removal of the ruined remains of the Mas makes it seem as though it had never existed. It will revert to the land, and Audrun, the only one to ever care for such an idea, is pleased.
But I was wondering about Veronica in the novel as a whole. For a long time, she is on the edges of what seems to be the main narrative, Anthony’s. She, self-centred cow that she is, never sees it this way, and Tremain seems to have realised that there’s more of interest in her problematic story than in his. Veronica sees herself as his saviour – she conveniently forgets that until recently he’s been massively successful in his own right – when in fact she’s stunted him emotionally. And it’s no accident that his success is in a venture that enabled him to turn his back on human relationships: his ‘beloveds’ are, literally, objects. We know this right from the start, but it takes Tremain the whole novel to show us how he got like this. At the funeral, Lloyd recounts to Veronica the story of Anthony’s best childhood memory. What does she do? She tells Lloyd that after the tree-house tea party their mother fell and injured her back. She was never right again and, well, perhaps the injury contributed to her cancer. The idea of her trampling over the story in this way is completely in character: despite her much vaunted love for her brother, she genuinely believes her own version of him as a hopeless case whenever she isn’t around. Case closed.
The novel is called Trespass, but Damage or Possession or Greed or Gimme Gimme Gimme would all have served equally well if they hadn’t already been taken. If it had been the satire I originally took it to be I would have enjoyed it more; as it is, its relentless bleakness and its complete refusal to offer the possibility of redemption ended up getting on my nerves nearly as much as these bloody people. (And remind me never to read another novel about middle class Brits making lives abroad. What can they do but make a bloody mess of it?)