Torn between the bourgeoisie and the Balkans
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.