Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2009

Trespass (2007), by Valerie Martin

 trespassI had no idea when I started this book, late on a Friday night after finally finishing Perfume, that I would find Trespass so rivetting and that I would keep reading until three in the morning. Trespass is a sort of psychological thriller, the malevolence explored vaguely reminiscent of Pat Barker’s Border Crossing although the plot and the characterisation is entirely different.

Chloe Dale is a mature woman, with a career as an illustrator, a loving husband and an adult son called Toby. He’s the light of her life, but Chloe doesn’t like his new girlfriend, Salome. She’s beautiful and clever, but she’s distant, acerbic and combative. The mistrust, alienation and jealousy that arises becomes toxic – with catastrophic repercussions.


Chloe’s initial hostile reaction to Salome’s offhand manner is instinctive, but it turns out to be a premonition of things to come. The young woman has a tragic background as a Croatian refugee and the menace of her history intrudes into this heartland of America.  She trespasses into the comfort, stability and ambitions of the Dale family, by making demands on Toby that he can only fulfil by prematurely setting up house with her, tolerating her violent brother, and then deferring his university studies to travel back to Croatia. Further disasters occur, but are they all triggered by the cuckoo in the nest?

Chloe has been commissioned to do the illustrations for a new edition of Wuthering Heights, and the allusion to the havoc Heathcliff brings to the romantic and obsessive Cathy is clear. Chloe identifies with Ellen Dean, the only one in Bronte’s story who has any common sense. She considers herself a reasonable, generous, open-minded women, but when her self-righteoousness is tested, that’s not how she behaves. Her husband, Brendon, a gentle academic on sabbatical to write an obscure history, doesn’t share her antipathy towards Salome, and is inclined to let things be. He supports her liberal, anti-Bush politics, but he doesn’t share her obsessive anxiety about a local poacher on their land. As events turn out, his judgement is vindicated and he is shown to be wiser and more humane, if a little naïve .

Martin is a very fine writer and this book is gripping, but I felt that the conclusion was a little too tidy. As Trespass progresses it alludes to physical, social and psychological trespasses, but they’re not all committed by the interloper Salome and the poacher. She does indeed seem to be after Toby’s money and social position, and she does damage his prospects, but Toby has parents who don’t trust him to sort out his adult problems by himself. He is, after all, 21, and not a teenager….Brendan going after him to Croatia – and Chloe resolutely not going, seems too obvious a way of facilitating the tale of Salome’s mother, and the resolution at the end seems utterly unlikely and doomed to failure.

Property, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003, is a better, more polished novel, exploring a not entirely dissimilar kind of moral blindness. Still, Trespass is an interesting book and after a run of three books that I really did not like, it was a joy to read.  I look forward to discovering more of this prolific writer’s work.

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