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Reviews: Current Books Trespass by Rose Tremain

Shouldering Baggage from the Past

Early in her 11th novel, another powerful psychological thriller, this one titled Trespass, British writer Rose Tremain introduces one of her four central characters. He is Anthony Verey, a London antiques dealer, and though he is 64 years old, he is still endowed with a head of thick, springy, white hair. The other three are his older sister, Veronica, and another advanced-age brother and sister pair, Aaramon and Audrun Lunel. Immediately we gather that Anthony is a depressed man who is experiencing nothing less than an existential crisis. In Tremain’s words, “His life has been straying irretrievably along a pathway towards nothing.”

For decades he had been a celebrity among London’s rich, a collector of paramount importance. Others had envied his knowledge and business acumen, not to mention his charm. Now, pity for Anthony replaces that adulation, and his business is about to go under. In this day and age, Tremain points out, nobody wants brown furniture once owned by dead people. To make matters worse, Anthony treats his few remaining customers with a visible disdain. On a cold April day, as he sits in the shop – devoid of customers – Anthony has a terrifying thought: “When he died, not one shard or splinter from any of his ‘beloveds’ – the name he ascribes to his precious antiques – would he be able to take with him.”

Hanging on the wall at the very back of Anthony’s Pimlico shop is an Aubusson tapestry dating from the time of the French King Lois XV. Its reds, blues and greens on a neutral ground are soft and pleasing. They depict a gathering of stylishly dressed aristocrats sitting on the grass in the shade of some broad-leaved trees. “Approaching the group are two servants, and elderly man and a young woman, bringing meat, bread, wine and fruit.” Anthony knows in his heart that he will never part with this treasure. Then he suddenly notices a loose thread in the tapestry. It hangs down over the brow of an old woman barely noticeable at the very edge of the scene. The old crone in her black cap suggests something sinister. Somehow we understand that this small figure, with its pulled thread, foreshadows disaster – an unraveling – in Anthony’s future.

Tremain next shifts her narrative from London to a rural area near the village of La Callune in the mountainous Cévennes region of south-central France. Here we meet 64-year-old Audrun Lunel as she walks through a forest of oaks and chestnuts. Tremain explains that Audrun suffers from “episodes” – intervals during which she either looses consciousness or “fabricates inappropriate ideas.” Audrun lives a humble life in an ugly modern bungalow built within sight of Mas Lunel, the massive decaying house that her father left solely to her alcoholic, psychotic brother, Aramon, now age 74. Audrun had grown up in Mas Lunel, and it was within its thick walls that – after her mother’s death – Aramon and their father sexually abused her over a period of 15 years. The incest has poisoned Mas Lunel’s very atmosphere. Starving, barking, hunting dogs, confined in a filthy pen, serve as metaphors for the entire farmstead’s unspeakable squalor and for Aramon’s personal state of decay.

Audrun is not stupid, a fact that the plot’s denouement will demonstrate. Over the years she has steeled herself to interact with her reprobate brother with dispassion.

Situated not far from Mas Lunel is the Cévenol, an idyllic French locale where Anthony’s sister Veronica, a landscape designer, lives in affluent comfort with her lover Kitty, a mediocre watercolorist, and a woman for whom Tremain clearly has no sympathy.

When Anthony pulls himself out of the doldrums, he resolves to make a drastic change in his life. He will sell the shop, most of his “beloveds,” and his London flat. He will flee to France, to Veronica – the only person he loves consistently – and find a house for himself near his sister’s. At first he envisions a small, simple house. But gradually he begins to imagine something with more land, something more stately, “where the ceilings would be high, where the kitchen would be big, where he could contrive some audacious lighting effects to show off the cream of the “beloveds” collection…His plans grew and flowered and multiplied in his head: guest suites, a pool house, a sauna, a knot garden, a wildflower meadow.” Tremain adds, “He wanted to make some grand new statement about his life before the years ate anymore of him away…”

The first property Anthony looks at is Mas Lunel. For some time Aramon, sick and addled from alcohol consumption, had been overwhelmed by the work necessary to maintain his home and farm. This reality combined with greed – he believed Mas Lunel would sell for at least 475,000 Euros – impelled him to put the crumbling place on the market. Anthony, perceiving it as “a slice of paradise,” is about to make an offer when he discovers an eyesore visible from Mas Lunel’s windows: Audrun’s bungalow. His enthusiasm wanes.

Late in the novel Tremain portrays Anthony visiting another property, again hoping to buy. But a low mood envelops him. The stately home, he broods, “sat too high on a pitiless plateau, unguarded, unprotected – with a precipice at its feet. The wind bent the pines planted to give it shade and shelter, bent them and bowed them.” Anthony faces the fact that he will not start his life over in a new residence. Tremain depicts his despondent thoughts: “Oh why was everything so tainted and marred, so pickled in misery and compromise.”

In a kind of reverie, he thinks about the Aubusson tapestry and the black thread unraveling from the head of the evil crone. He interprets this as a prediction of his impending death. Indeed, so acute is his misery that he contemplates suicide. Bittersweet thoughts of his mother, a woman “insubstantial as candy floss,” also assail him.

With the stylistic mastery and economy that we’ve come to expect from her, Tremain builds for Anthony, and each of the other three principal characters, a back story of disappointment, helplessness and endurance. Each is a victim of incapacitating childhood trauma. Anthony and his sister Veronica grew up loving a mother who, quite simply, did not love them in return. Because she had a horse to console her, Veronica was able to cope. Anthony had no such distraction and therefore was scarred by his passion – a near-romantic love – for his ludicrous mother.

Audrun, of course, suffered the ultimate childhood injury. In the case of Aramon, he never recovered from the damaging effects of the sordid upbringing his immoral father provided. An adult life of purpose and contentment was not a probability for any one of the four. Each shouldered too much baggage.