Valerie Martin


(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew SEP 22, 2007)

"But it's our forest."


Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Samuel P. Huntington all theorized about the ebb, flow, and clashes of civilizations and cultures. Valerie Martin, it can be said, follows in their footsteps in Trespass. But rather than produce a long, dry macroscopic history; she writes a micro-drama in the form of a finely-tuned, exquisitely-layered novel about the Dale family.
Two-thirds of the Dales still live an hour and a half from NYC, in the Catskill Mountains. Chloe illustrates books, and her current commission is a special edition of Wuthering Heights. Her husband, Brendan, is a professor writing a history of Stupor Mundi (the wonder of the world) who was also known as Frederick of Hohenstaufen. Their son, Toby, is an honors student at New York University who meets and falls for Salome Drago, a volatile, abrasive young woman of Catholic Croatian descent. Salome was a child when she and her father and brothers fled their Balkans homeland during the ethnic cleansing. 

Brendan is the most easygoing of the Dales. Chloe, however, is more sensitive and resistant to change. When a "foreigner" hunts deer in their posted woods, she is determined to put a stop to it, because she feels this hunter's encroachment as an invasion that must be repelled. She has the same foreboding about Salome. She warns Toby that Salome might trap him into marriage as a way to gain the material advantages the Dales have and the Dragos don't. Toby, more like his father, but occasionally prodded by Chloe's suspicions, begins to realize that an exchange of vows with Salome will change life for him and his parents irretrievably.

Martin weaves together so many threads, including a wealth of literary sapience. In a beautiful passage early in the book, Chloe muses over Emily Bronte and Henry David Thoreau. "Could two more disparate sensibilities ever have occupied the planet at the same time? Thoreau, all patient observation, ironic, obstreperous, oddly genial; Bronte, rebellious, passionate, chilly, imperious, raised on fantastic tales in a house with a graveyard at the front door." She imagines a walk with Henry and Emily: "They would have hated each other. She would have thought him dry and lifeless, and he would have dismissed her as sef-absorbed and irrational." And Chloe's close study of Wuthering Heights, to determine which scenes she will illustrate, also accentuates the themes swirling in her life. For instance, Chloe thinks of Heathcliff, "No, he's not the Romanic vision of an overheated female imagination. He's something new: the vengeful orphan, the ungrateful outsider, the coming retribution of the great underclass." Chloe can easily apply the same sketch to Salome or the hunter who knows scarcely any English. 

Among the most potent and wrenching scenes are the recollections of the horrors the people of the Balkans suffered as Yugoslavia violently dissolved into constituent, basically ethnic states. After learning something shocking, Salome returns to Zagreb, Croatia, near her destroyed childhood home and then travels to Trieste, Italy (right on the Slovenian border). She is soon followed by Toby, and then Brendan, and they all meet someone who relates what is was like to remain in the festering, furious Balkans after Salome had crossed to the safety of the U.S. 

Martin unflinchingly stacks scene on scene in Trespass to illustrate the shifting sands of culture, class, and civilization. The affluent, agnostic Eastern Dales who join their (mainly) liberal friends in marches against the war that is about to be declared in 2004, will either, Trespass cautions, acquiesce gracefully (even eagerly?) to the inevitability of changing demographics, or not...but resistance won't alter inevitability. Toby charges ahead, "I want to know Salome. I want to know everything about her. That's my mission." Brendan prefers to avoid confrontations: when the poacher invades again, he would rather just not venture into the woods. Chloe isn't made that way; she says her son is "an idiot" for letting Salome into their lives, and she would argue with the hunter, "'But it's our forest.'" 

Whether one does or doesn't agree with the premise that America is irremediably passing to a new set of custodians, this highly intelligent, complicated novel should not be missed. Filled with memorable imagery and symbolism, Trespass is first and foremost a story to be savored on the human level. Trespass doesn't take obvious paths. The Dragos are not Muslim, although Chloe at first thinks they are. The hunter (almost more symbol than person) isn't quite the bogeyman Chloe imagines. And Salome isn't the ominous figure one might have expected from reading the book's back cover. The choices each character faces and the sometimes predictable, sometimes astounding decisions they make represent this great novel's succulent marrow. 
  • Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Trespass at The New York Times

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About the Author:

Valerie MartinValerie Martin was born in 1948 in Missouri and grew up in New Orleans. She is a graducate of the MFA Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Ms. Martin is the author of numerous short stories and novels including the 2003 Orange Prize-winning Property. She has also taught at Mount Holyoke College, Loyola University New Orleans, The University of New Orleans, The University of Alabama and Sarah Lawrence College.

She lived in Italy for three years and now resides in upstate New York About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014