Trespass, By Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin's new novel connects the personal and the political to powerful effect
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The Independent Culture

Trespass is Valerie Martin's first full-length novel since Property seduced the Orange Prize judges in 2003. The bookies thought that the starrier Zadie Smith or Donna Tartt would win, but Martin's 19th-century story of a brutal plantation owner in America's Deep South sidled past its rivals and snatched the prize. Property left an indelible sense that Valerie Martin was a political writer who knew how to tell a story, but who would always attempt to do more than that. There is an intellectual coherence to her writing, and her old preoccupations with power and ownership reappear to brilliant effect in Trespass. Once again she takes precise moments in history and uses them to tell a larger truth about what happens when circumstances allow one person to dominate another. The slave trade of Property is exchanged for two military campaigns: the war in the former Yugoslavia and America's 2003 bombing assault on Iraq.

Toby and Salome are New York students from starkly different backgrounds. Salome fled the war in Croatia as a little girl and settled with her father and brother in New Orleans. Toby is the cosseted only child of history professor Brendan and artist Chloe. Toby falls in love with Salome for her strangeness, her foreignness – the very qualities that make Chloe react with jealous panic. Antipathy between the two women is inevitable. The "trespass" of the title doesn't refer simply to the larger political picture of two wars, but to the encroachment by one on to another's territory. Chloe can't bear Salome's appropriation of her son, and while she agonises over Salome's "theft", she is intermittently terrorised by a prowling poacher whose gunshots punctuate her thoughts. Not that Chloe is immune to a little trespass herself. In a glancing reference we learn that Chloe drew sketches of her own mother as she lay dying in hospital. And because the "dead subject is desirable" for an artist, she continued to sketch, even "in the two or three minutes between the moment when she knew her subject had departed this life and the moment when she got up and went out to notify the night nurse".

Valerie Martin's prose is refreshingly cool, clear and unembellished. Her writing gives me the strong feeling that, above all, she simply wants to tell the truth. I smiled with recognition when one of her characters scoffs at television news journalists who emote rather than report. As a group of Iraqi men attack a statue of Saddam Hussein, Toby's father watches a BBC correspondent gushing to his audience "this is a moment of enormous, enormous, symbolism, breathtaking". Some contemporary news commentary sounds like pastiche by comparison with Martin's clarity. The italicised passages in which she recounts the sexual torture of Salome's mother by Serbian militia are explicit and powerful, and made even more shocking by their restrained language.

Oddly, Trespass is least successful when it gets to the easy bit. The frenzied choreography at the end to manoeuvre all her characters into position has the feel of an overwrought chess-player pushing pieces around the board in a panic. But this is a minor complaint. Valerie Martin can write and, just as important, she has something to say.

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