The French countryside has long proved fertile ground for English writers looking to impart a certain kind of magic. Think of the service it has done for Peter Mayle, Joanne Harris, Sebastian Faulks and Julian Barnes, among many others. Often this landscape is idealised. The locals are charming, Nature is at its most beneficent, the food's delicious, and the wine's even better. Romance and contentment can hardly fail to blossom in such an environment.
In her new novel – her 11th – Rose Tremain takes a stretch of rural France and invites us to look at it rather differently. It's the present day and we are in the remote Cévennes in the southern Massif, and even when the weather is nice, there is menace in the air: "The April sun was warm and flashed cutlass-bright on the swiftly moving river." Danger lurks in the woods. Farmhouses stand bleak and alone. The wind blows cold round rocky outcrops, where one slip could mean you fall to your death. For Tremain, it's very much a case of putting the terror into terroir.
A thoroughly engrossing psychological thriller that cries out for a film version by Claude Chabrol, Trespass is the third novel Tremain has set in France after The Swimming Pool Season and The Way I Found Her, but in genre terms, it is a departure for her. We are a long way from the Danish court of the 1620s (Music & Silence), the England of Charles II (Restoration), gold-prospecting in 19th-century New Zealand (The Colour), and the eastern European immigrant experience in contemporary Britain (The Road Home, which won 2008's Orange Prize for Fiction, in spite of its author creating a succession of such deeply unpleasant women characters that the book almost read like an assault on her own gender).
Tremain has always taken a Hardyesque approach to humanity's flaws, and there is a compelling certainty with which the central figures in Trespass are headed towards their doom. In this instance, however, they are victims less of the randomness of Fate than of childhood traumas that can be buried in the memory for only so long before shocking consequences play out.
Anthony Verey is a London antiques dealer in late-middle age whose business is foundering. He can't connect with people as he can with the beautiful objects that surround him (his "beloveds"), and amid a growing sense of personal crisis, directly traceable to his deeply troubled upbringing, he sees the possibility of salvation when he goes for an extended stay with his sister Veronica and her partner Kitty in the home they have made for themselves in France.
It is not a happy arrangement, and soon Verey is nurturing hopes of acquiring his own bolt hole, but it must meet his very specific requirements of solitariness and aesthetic perfection. That delivers him into the world of Aramon and Audrun Lunel, a brother and sister of humble background to whom is attached a devastating secret of their own.
Tremain's writing is both vivid and wonderfully compressed, the eye that is cast over proceedings unblinking. There is no striving for effect; such imagery as is deployed is perfectly judged, the story- telling is stripped down to its purest form, and the command of the material is total. The novel is only 250 pages long, but it packs an enormous punch – the work of a writer at the top of her game.
From an apparent idyll, Tremain has summoned a spirit of profound disquiet and, as with all her best writing, revealed the anguish that can lie just below the surface of everyday lives. At the very least, anyone reading this book who is chasing the dream of Gallic escape might not be in quite such a hurry to get on to the next estate agent's website.Reuse content