This is a dark ride.
Rose Tremain‘s eleventh novel – longlisted for last year’s Man Booker – is a succinctly-named novel whose central theme operates on several different levels: trespass of people against each other, both of one generation on the next and among peers, leading to possession of one by another; of new ideas and ways on old ones; of one culture on another; and of people against nature. With each form of trespass must come a penalty, and the taking of recompense, if reconciliation, reclamation and redemption – or, at least, some form of accommodation – is to be the result.
Ms Tremain has succeeded in producing an enduring, engrossing novel despite three of the four central human characters – two sets of brother and sister siblings with a very different relationship, but who share in common the dysfunctional effects of appallingly neglectful parenting – having few redeeming features: only one appears in any way sympathetic and the actions of this one character raise interesting moral questions. All the major characters are well-drawn, including with the use of savage humour, while it is a particular skill to make the reader feel active dislike for long-dead characters who appear in the novel only indirectly, as a result of the back stories of those who do. Nevertheless, the novel is a timely reminder that flawed humans are all victims, whatever they do to each other as a result of the scars that they carry.
The telling of the tale is accomplished and rounded, with few unresolved threads, as well as being largely taut, tense and with an ending whose nature is obscure deep into the final stages of the work. I have a couple of quibbles about the writing style – there is a conversational tone to some parts of the writing, which is strangely at odds with the theme; while I also have an antipathy to the parenthetical dropping of occasional foreign language words into direct speech to remind us that the speaker is a native of another country. However, the theme is otherwise extremely and thought-provokingly well-executed, evocative and with careful attention to detail not least with regard to nature which is itself a major character in the work.
A punchy and resonant read.