Torn be­tween the bour­geoisie and the Balkans

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

CALL this novel The Un­rav­el­ling rather than Tres­pass . The lat­ter sug­gests lit­tle more than in­fringe­ment, but what Va­lerie Martin does here goes deeper than that. She sets up an up­per mid­dle- class New York fam­ily only to pull it apart.

Chloe, the mother, is a book il­lus­tra­tor; her hus­band, Bren­dan, a his­to­rian be­calmed in the mid­dle of a work on Fred­er­ick, the 13th- cen­tury Holy Ro­man em­peror; and their son, Toby, a univer­sity stu­dent with the req­ui­site gold stud in one ear.

En­ter the cen­tripetal force: Salome, Toby’s new girl­friend. At an un­easy get- to- know- onean­other lunch, Chloe ap­praises her with her artist’s eye: dark hair and lots of it, heavy brows, sharp fea­tures, dark eyes, dark cir­cles un­der the eyes, dark looks about the room.

Salome, a fel­low stu­dent of Toby, is Croa­t­ian and fierce, with no time for bour­geois pro­pri­eties. She es­caped a place where such things were mean­ing­less, no more than in­su­la­tion against the vi­o­lence she wit­nessed as a child­hood vic­tim of Ser­bian eth­nic cleans­ing, in which she lost her mother and one of her brothers. What Chloe finds off- putting — Salome’s un­man­nerly di­rect­ness — is what Toby, an Amer­i­can in­no­cent of the kind Henry James never tired of de­pict­ing, finds ir­re­sistible. Soon Chloe’s worst fears are re­alised when Salome be­comes preg­nant.

While Chloe sees her as a peas­ant on the make, Bren­dan seems to his wife mad­den­ingly lib­eral and tol­er­ant about what’s hap­pen­ing, and mar­i­tal di­vi­sions start to open up. It so hap­pens that Chloe is work­ing on il­lus­tra­tions for a new edi­tion of Wuther­ing Heights , and her vi­sions of Heathcliff and Salome start to co­a­lesce: dark strangers both, sub­vert­ers of civilised or­der.

If Chloe takes the news of Salome’s preg­nancy badly, how then will Salome’s fa­ther re­act? Branko, a mo­rose gi­ant of a man who es­caped the Serbs and brought Salome and a brother as chil­dren to the US, has re­made him­self in the seafood busi­ness. He’s the oys­ter king of Louisiana and not a man to be crossed. Will he take Toby, this con­de­scend­ing east coaster, apart? Even Salome is re­luc­tant to tell him. Martin can string the ten­sion along like a vi­o­lin tuner and this is one of her most sus­pense­ful scenes. But when the mo­ment of reve­la­tion comes, Branko breaks out his last bot­tle of Croa­t­ian wine.

Toby is now en­ti­tled to hope that life will settle down, but Salome and tur­bu­lence go to­gether. Sud­denly she clears out with­out telling him. Af­ter ag­o­nies of anx­i­ety and para­noia, has she eloped with his best friend? She rings. She’d gone in search of her mother se­cretly be­cause the fam­ily fiction was that she was dead. She found her in Tri­este. By now Chloe’s had quite enough of Balkan high drama, but what in­fu­ri­ates her at­tracts Bren­dan who, ma­rooned in the 13th cen­tury, re­alises that in­ten­sity is just what he’s been miss­ing. He ac­com­pa­nies Toby to Tri­este, per­haps in search of some­thing him­self.

Je­lena, the miss­ing mother, turns out to be as for­mi­da­ble as her daugh­ter, and in the com­pany of th­ese two ele­men­tal women, fa­ther and son feel ful­filled while the luck­less Chloe is left be­hind. And with Martin poised to deal out the fi­nal sur­prises, that’s where I’ll leave the plot.

Martin, whose ear­lier novel, Prop­erty , won the 2003 Orange Prize, has abun­dant gifts, and the twists and turns are ex­pertly han­dled. But there’s a prob­lem with this book. Like the char­ac­ters within it, it too is over­whelmed.

Je­lena’s story, printed in ital­ics and in­ter­leaved through­out the nar­ra­tive, be­gins with her pas­sion­ate af­fair. Not only is she un­faith­ful to Branko, worse, she’s un­faith­ful to Croa­tia, be­cause Mi­lan, her lover, is a Serb.

When the eth­nic cleans­ing be­gins, this is what saves her, but not be­fore a jour­ney through rape and hor­ror so re­lent­lessly de­tailed that it bursts through the main story and over­pow­ers it. What we get — the in­va­sion of Iraq is be­gin­ning — is a para­ble against the folly of war. It’s ter­ri­fy­ingly pow­er­ful but throws the book out of bal­ance. Iron­i­cally, that’s the tres­pass in Tres­pass . Jour­neys, the fifth col­lec­tion of sto­ries edited by Barry Oak­ley for Five Mile Press, has just been pub­lished.

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