Trespass by Valerie Martin is one of those books that is unmistakably literary. The writing is polished to a high gloss. The story doesn’t have much plot but revolves around character. And it plays with an idea, holds it up to the light, turns it inside out and upside down, probing for meaning and insight.
Trespass has two meanings, to unlawfully enter another person’s land or property and, according to the dictionary, an archaic meaning of sin or offense (as in “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). Both meanings are at work in the book.
We have Chloe and Brendan. Chloe is an illustrator. She is currently working on a new project to create illustrations for a new edition of Wuthering Heights. Her project and thoughts about the book and especially Heathcliff, a trespasser in his own right, are interwoven throughout. Brendan is a history professor on leave from the university so he can complete his book about the Crusades. His thoughts on history and Frederick arriving in Jerusalem and the Sultan of al-Kamil trail their way through the book too. They live in New York in the country on about ten acres of woods and fields. There is a poacher who keeps trespassing onto their land and shooting rabbits and turkeys. He turns out to be Basque and doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t understand he is not supposed to be hunting there. He seems ominous. He has a gun. And oh, does he create a feeling of tension in the book.
There is Toby, Chloe and Brendan’s son who is in grad school. He meets Salome, a drop-dead gorgeous fellow grad student. They fall in love and move in together. Salome is Croatian. Her father escaped the conflict in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s with Salome and her older brother. Salome’s mother, Jelena, and a younger brother were killed. Chloe does not like Salome. She is suspicious of her and sees her as a rival for her son’s affections. She automatically thinks the worst of Salome in every situation; suspects that she is not all that she seems. For her part, Salome does not like Chloe either. She might if Chloe had not set herself up as a rival, but since she has, it’s war between them and poor Toby is caught in the middle.
Also running through the book is Jelena’s story. It turns out she is not dead and she has quite a tale of her own to tell of her life before the war and how she managed to survive being captured and repeatedly raped by Serbs. We also meet Salome’s older brother and her father.
All these people bumping into each other, physically and emotionally trespassing on each other’s psychic landscape. That psychic landscape has a tendency to seem gray and misty. It would be perfect if I could describe it as “wuthering,” but there is no wind to speak of. Perhaps if there was at least a breeze it would have blown away the mist so these characters could see a bit more clearly. But rights and territory have to be defended and sins must be committed and revealed. And did I mention the action of the book takes place during the lead up to the war in Iraq? So add that to the list of trespasses.
The book is not one that you can just slip into and lose yourself in. I was always conscious of myself reading it. This is not a bad thing at all. The book is not meant to carry you along; it is meant to make you think. It is also one of those books that sort of hang around in your thoughts for awhile after you finish it. Once I knew the beginning and the end I could poke around at all the spots in between and exclaim, “Ah, so that’s why…” I enjoyed the book immensely. If you like character-driven novels that make you think, you will definitely like Trespass.