Let no one ever question the value of literary prizes again. Like many, I heard of Valerie Martin when her superb novel Property won the Orange Prize in 2003. Property provides a sensitive look at the slave owner’s mind while further reinforcing the horror and shame of the institution of slavery; I can think of few more challenging tasks for a writer.
Martin’s new novel Trespass showcases all that made Property such a compelling read-a taut plotline, immaculate prose, masterly changes of perspective, and perhaps most vitally, the author’s gift for delving deep into her character’s lives to reveal how the seemingly trivial can reflect the issues of our times. Trespass examines the question of immigration, and this complex issue is well-served by Martin’s delicate yet insistent probing of one American family’s experience with foreigners and foreignness.
The Dales-husband Brandon, a professor of history, wife Chloe, an illustrator, and their son Toby, a student at NYU-are a close-knit family who hold each other in genuine respect and affection. They are comfortably well-off, and live in a beautiful house in a wooded property in the Catskills. Waiting at the edges of their idyllic lives, however, are the interlopers. Toby’s new girlfriend is a Croatian immigrant named Salome Drago whom Chloe finds aggressive, unnervingly intelligent, and rude; a trespasser, as it were, in the world of polite niceties the Dales inhabit.
Martin imbues Chloe’s first meeting with Salome with a wonderful tension, centered around what Chloe feels versus what she is allowed (and allows herself) to show. Chloe has always considered herself a tolerant liberal (in the dictionary as well as political sense), but must now ponder whether her antipathy towards Salome is more than normal maternal possessiveness; would she be more accepting if Salome was less foreign? Meanwhile, to add to her worries, a poacher-who just happens to be an immigrant of undetermined origin-is wandering around the Dales’ property with a rifle.
Reading Trespass is often akin to being aboard a boat on a very stormy sea; the ground beneath one’s feet pitches away every few pages. When the narrative is vocalized in Chloe’s voice, we feel for this obviously well-meaning lady, who is, after all, motivated by her desire for son’s happiness. Then a flick of the narrative switch, and behold! We see Salome, lacking both assurance and polish (those by-products of a privileged upbringing), facing open hostility from a woman with an enormous sense of entitlement. Trespass is narrated in the voices of the three Dales, and Martin delights in making us re-examine our opinions just as our sympathies settle. As for the poacher: this symbol of egregious trespass is perhaps motivated by hunger rather than greed; as a newcomer to America, he could merely be confused as to why the abundant game in the land around him is forbidden for his consumption.
Weaving through the story of the Dales is another, italicized narrative, by an (initially) unidentified woman. This tale, set in the Balkans, describes the events that occurred when people who’d been neighbors for centuries suddenly woke up to each other’s foreignness. Rape-the ultimate act of trespass upon a human being-was one of the most widely-used “weapons” in the Serbo-Croatian war. Martin describes these accounts with unflinching clarity, and the result is all the more chilling for being so levelly articulated. The two narrative threads converge when the woman’s identity is revealed.
Meanwhile, back in America, preparations for the invasion of Iraq are underway. Martin juxtaposes the joyful beating of the drums of war by the Bush administration against the narrative of the Serbo-Croatian conflict, showing the reality of rape and murder that talk of “shock and awe” glosses over. While America’s invasion of with Iraq is clearly an act of trespass in Martin’s eyes, there are no easy equivalences in this layered, fiercely intelligent novel. Trespass makes us reconsider the traditional alignment of right and wrong with trespassed-upon and trespasser respectively. For even as Martin shifts perspectives, she shifts our paradigms-as the best writing always does.
(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.)