Saturday, July 26, 2008


In 2005 our Book Club read Valerie Martin's Possession, a dark and disturbing story about a loveless marriage between a Louisiana sugar plantation owner and his wife, and the volatile relationship both of them have with the female slave he has given her as a wedding gift. (Click here to see our entire Book Club catalog). So when I started her latest novel Trespass I was expecting another brooding and violent period piece. Instead the novel opens with a contemporary scene – a mother, who has traveled to Manhattan from her rural home upstate, meets her college student son and his new girlfriend at a restaurant for lunch. Toby is clearly besotted with his darkly exotic girlfriend Salome Drago, a Croatian refugee. But his mother Chloe is not impressed. The early chapters expand on the tensions which grow as Toby's devotion to Salome and Chloe's mistrust of her lead to clashes between the mother and son, despite the best efforts of Chloe's amiable husband Brendan to keep the peace between mother and son.. Martin presents a realistic portrayal of a mother who feels loving and protective towards her son, and can't help thinking that his girlfriend is taking advantage of his naïveté. But a darker undercurrent slowly appears as the story progresses.

As the title implies there is a trespasser in Chloe's life, a foreign-looking poacher hunting rabbits on her land. At the same time she is illustrating an edition of Wuthering Heights, and her woodcuts of Heathcliff, a dark and mysterious outsider much like Salome, seem to reflect this menacing mood. And in New York anti-war protests are increasing during the lead up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The details of Salome's family history in Bosnia, vaguely hinted at early in the book, begin to emerge. The menacing feeling that Martin has slowly built finally explodes in harrowing scenes of the Bosnian genocide. What began as a domestic story widens to encompass a larger picture of the effects of war. But at the same time it remains a story about parents and children, husbands and wives. Martin never lets you feel settled in your view of any of her characters. They are complex, and in some ways all experience the dark effects of trespass.

Although I was a little disappointed in the tidy way Martin wrapped up her story, I tremendously enjoyed her dispassionate storytelling and her ability to weave the political and the personal into a compelling narrative.

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