Category Archives: Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

I am probably quite the stuck record when it comes to this, but hey ho my blog my rules and foibles, but when an author I love has a new book out I get excited and I get nervous. The latter tends to win in the reading part of my brain and so I put off reading the book because I am scared it might not be as amazing as I want it to be. Pessimism, another foible of mine. In the case of Rose Tremain’s latest novel The Gustav Sonata I couldn’t have been more wrong as I think this might be my favourite novel of hers yet.

Vintage Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland , at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects – or even people – she had not prepared herself to encounter.

As The Gustav Sonata opens we are instantly thrown into the slightly claustrophobic and cloying world of Gustav Perle. Living alone with his mother, after the death of his father which no one ever talks about, he lives a sheltered life where his mother struggles to make ends meet. Whilst his father his absent his presence is anything but, yet it must not be discussed or questioned. Without realising it Gustav is living quite an unhappy life until he befriends a boy new to the neighbourhood, Anton. As Anton and his mysterious background come into Gustav’s life so do the questions that he has never asked or even contemplated.

One or two of the apartment residents arrived in the courtyard and stopped to smile at the two boys dancing around the old cherry tree. Later, when Anton had gone home, Emilie said, ‘I suppose there may not be any cherry trees in Bern. It’s unlikely, but one can’t say for sure. Perhaps he had never seen one before?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Gustav.
‘I think he’s a nice boy,’ said Emilie, ‘but of course he is a Jew.’
‘What’s a Jew?’ asked Gustav,
‘Ah,’ said Emilie. ‘The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.’

Anton therefore in many ways brings as much lightness as he does darkness into Gustav’s life, something Tremain keeps bringing up and we see repeating throughout. On the one hand he has the kind of friendship he has always dreamed of, certainly the opposite to one with one of his neighbours sons. He also, through Anton’s parents and situation gets introduced to a world unlike any he has known, here the conflicts come in. He lives on the breadline while Anton lives a life of spoils, Anton is set to be a prodigal pianist whilst Gustav has never been given any drive or belief, Anton’s family are loving and caring to him while Emilie is somewhat cold and unstable. These contrasts naturally cause Gustav some internal turmoil.

Here is one of the main strengths of Tremain’s writing and the novel. Facades, which is really what lies at the heart of The Gustav Sonata, the facades we create for ourselves and for others. Gustav sees Anton’s life as perfect, yet Tremain shows us as readers that this is not always the case. This is always something that I love in fiction, where we get to know more than the characters and what lies around them, yet Tremain makes it anything but predictable, again something I have always loved in her writing since I started reading her work a few years ago. I am fanboying aren’t I? I don’t even care, it’s all true.

‘Won’t your parents think this is odd? They might not want us to play here.’
‘We won’t tell them,’ said Anton.
‘Where will they think we are?’
‘Just “exploring”. On holidays, when she doesn’t want me around, my mother’s always saying “Why don’t you go exploring, Anton?” We’ll tell them we’re building a camp in the forest. And anyway, they’ll be fucking.’
‘What’s fucking?’
‘It’s what they like to do on holiday. They go to bed and take their clothes off and kiss and scream things out, It’s called fucking.’

Moments like this in the novel are ones where Rose Tremain does so much with so little. Reading this part of the book as adults we see that actually Anton’s parents are not living the perfect life that he or Gustav believe, they are actually there to try to save their marriage. We also see, without spoilers, that Tremain cleverly creates several analogies as the boys’ adventure in the atmosphere of the Alps foreign climbs. When you have read the book you will know what I mean. From a character level, we also get to see how much Gustav looks up to Anton and how truly shielded from the world he is and how soon the two embrace freedom to the full. It is here that something happens which has effects that ripple throughout the book and of which I will say no more or you will not be weeping at the end of the book like I was, with a mix of sadness and utter joy.

Yet The Gustav Sonata is not just about Gustav. There is a second story with the pages of this book which reveals itself within the second part, of three, in the novel. This is the story of Gustav’s father Erich and how he meets Emilie and what happens in the lead up to his absence in the house. That said though, this being Rose Tremain it isn’t that simple and the full reveal doesn’t come until a point you least expect it. Moving on, for fear of spoilers as this is a twisty wonderful book, there is once again layers to this second story which take us in directions we least expect and see characters again doing this we may personally fathom but boy are they interesting to read. It also highlights again how the history of our families and what has gone before us can shape both our personalities and upbringing even when we don’t ourselves see it as children. Something I personally find really fascinating.

Tremain remains like Switzerland throughout, neutral. Don’t mistake that for a lack of passion for her characters or the situations which they find themselves in, good or bad. It is this neutrality – which I think is always in her work and is one of the things that I like so much about it – that leaves the reader to place their emotions and their own moral compass, you have to ask ‘well what would I do?’ and ‘how would I feel in those circumstances in that time in that society?’ All of this only makes the novel all the more powerful and the readers emotional investment all the greater. And like I said this book had me an emotional mess by the end, as all the best books do.

If you hadn’t guessed, I loved The Gustav Sonata. I read it at the very end of last year and it was just what I needed, a novel that reminded me why I read and the power of a great book. I also think it is my favourite of all the Rose Tremain novels and short stories I have read since I have started reading her work, which my Gran told me to do when she was terminally ill as she was sure Tremain is an author I ‘would get’ or vice versa. I find it very odd that she won’t read this book, anyway before I get all emotional about that and the book… Suffice to say I think that if you haven’t read it yet then I strongly urge you to. It is one of the best novels I have read in some time.

If you haven’t got yourself a copy then you can here. I have no idea how the Bailey’s judges are going to choose a winner between this and The Essex Serpent which were both two of my books of last year. That said I am now reading the whole longlist and having read a few of the first chapters of some of them it is looking like a really strong longlist. Have any of you read The Gustav Sonata and if so what did you think? What about Rose Tremain’s other novels and collections?

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2016, Review, Rose Tremain, Vintage Books

The American Lover – Rose Tremain

If one book could sum up my reading year it would probably be Rose Tremain’s collection The American Lover. In part this is because this has been a year in which I have rediscovered my love of the short story. It wasn’t that I had abandoned them; I think I was just reading the wrong ones. It is also the year that I finally read Rose Tremain, after reading her work in honour of Granny Savidge who rated her as one of her favourite living authors. I am kicking myself for not having read her sooner and The American Lover again shows why she is such a master of the story whatever length.

Chatto & Windus, 2014, hardback, short stories, 232 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

One of the things that I most love about Rose Tremain’s writing is how she gets into the heads of the outsider or the underdog, or indeed the forgotten voices in society. This is probably the theme that runs through all her work and is the only thing that really connects The American Lover which is about as eclectic a selection of short stories as you could ask for in terms of scope, lengths and subject matter.

We have all felt, even the most confident of us, like outsiders at some point in her lives and this theme chimes within us even if we aren’t like the two old men in Captive or Smithy, who both live alone and try to get by and be helpful both (heartbreakingly so), we can empathise with them from what we have experienced as we do in all the stories. Rose also looks at people who choose to be outsiders such as Walter and Lena in A View of Lake Superior in the Fall who have become recluses hidden away in the wilds to hide from their grown up daughter, you will laugh and you will cry; and in another tale the very real Leo Tolstoy who appears, having escaped his horrendous wife in The Jester of Astapovo. She also looks at Sapphic love and how being different in whatever way makes us feel an outsider in the brilliant Extra Geography. Another highlight for me though was the appearance of one of my very favourite fictional outsiders…

Everybody believes that I am an invented person: Mrs Danvers. They say I am a creation: ‘Miss du Maurier’s finest creation’, in the opinion of many. But I have my own story. I have a history and a soul. I am a breathing woman.

You can imagine my chills of excitement when I saw that yes, Rose Tremain takes on Rebecca in The Housekeeper looking at it from a completely different angle of the relationship between muse, writer and the finished works. In fact writing is one of the themes interspersed throughout The American Lover, indeed in the title story we discover the tale of Beth whose affair with a much older man when she was younger inspired the bestselling novel The American Lover, yet what was she left with after. This is a wonderful and, another Tremain trope, heartbreaking tale and you can see why it was up for the short story award earlier in the year. As we have a reimaging of how Rebecca was inspired and how Tolstoy spent his last days we also get a wonderful modern retelling of a rather famous Shakespeare play with 21st Century Juliet, which had me cackling. The excerpt below made me laugh and also reminds you all to pop my birthday date in your diaries, ha!

24th March
Cook supper for Cousin Tibs. I adore the bastard like the brother I never had. We get smashed on the (four) bottles of Corvo he’s brought and I tell him about Mayo and about Perry’s declaration. Relief to get everything out in the open. And Tibs is really sweet and on my side and agrees with me that good sex is awesomely rare and that Perry Paris is verging on being a pillock.

What I also love about Rose Tremain’s writing (and I have a lot of love for it if you hadn’t noticed) is that she explores all aspects of we strange human folk. She looks at loneliness, grief, rage, love, loss, death, kindness, bitterness in all their forms. One of the tales that did this best (and is probably in my favourites of the collection with The American Lover, Captive and obviously The Housekeeper) is BlackBerry Winter where we meet Fran as she goes home for Christmas. Here with time to reflect she does the things we all do now and again, and something that Tremain is very good at discussing in her work, asking the questions of ourselves we don’t like to face or are shocked to face. Some are hard and dark; what are we doing with our lives, are we in the right relationship, do we like ourselves? Some are dark but funny (Tremain does black comedy so, so well) like when we contemplate killing our mothers, or wishing we were dead, even just for a moment.

Fran unpacked her clothes and put them in her old wardrobe, which used to creak and grumble in the night, like something alive. Then, she sat down on the single bed and took out her BlackBerry and emailed David. She told him that she almost wished Peggy had been sliced in half by the gin trap; she told him that the moonshine on The Trib had made her long to be a Tahitian again; she told him that her love for him was as dark and familiar as the wood. When she signed off and contemplated her evening alone with Peggy and the TV, she experienced thirty seconds of wanting to be dead.

I loved the whole collection of The American Lover, there is so much that is wonderful in here I haven’t managed to mention A Man in the Water, Juliette Greco’s Black Dress, Lucy & Gaston  or The Closing Door which are all marvellous, and all have all the Tremain-isms in them that I mention above. Also you might need another reason to quickly run and get this from the shops for loved ones, though really I would recommend you just treat yourself and find a few hours to curl up with it and all the worlds and stories Rose Tremain creates for you.

When Simon Met Rose...

When Simon Met Rose…

I had the joy of meeting Rose, who is just lovely, and talking about The American Lover and some of the other books she has written (and indeed I have read for Trespassing with Tremain, the review of Restoration coming before the end of the year) a month or so ago which you can listen to here on You Wrote The Book. Who else has read this collection and what did you think? What about Tremain’s other works? I still have plenty to go which I am so excited about; she is definitely a firm favourite author of mine now.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories

Sacred Country – Rose Tremain

I am slightly wary of talking about seeing themes in an authors work for fear of people thinking I have got above my station and am being a bit pretentious. However having now read four, of Rose Tremain’s works for Trespassing with Tremain, Sacred Country being the penultimate, there are a few themes I am spotting. The stories of outsiders seem to be something that Tremain is most captivated by. In Sacred Country it is not one person who is the outsider, though initially you might think it, rather a whole cast of characters who all feel at odds with the world around them and those closest to them, who often feel it too. Tremain is something of a mistress of the unsaid and the voice of those who are different.

Vintage books, paperback, 2002, fiction, 366 pages, bought by my good self

From an early age Mary Ward feels like she is slightly different from everyone else both in her family and in the small village of Swaithey, where the Suffolk countryside meets the coastline. It is not until the funeral for the King, in 1952 when Mary is six, that she knows how to put it into words. As soon as it dawns on her we know that Mary is going to have a difficult life ahead of her fighting against the conforms of normality in many people’s eyes.

She stared at her family, took then in, one, two, three of them, quiet at last but not as still as they were meant to be, not still like the plumed men guarding the King’s coffin, not still like bulrushes in a lake. And then, hearing the familiar screech of her guineafowl coming near the farmhouse, she thought, I have some news for you Marguerite, I have a secret to tell you, dear, and this is it: I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.

There is much that is marvellous about what Tremain does with Sacred Country and indeed with Mary. At the start of the novel I have to admit that I was rather worried. Child narrators are a complex beast in fiction, often used to highlight some moral or social story with naivety which can often come across as either being calculating or utterly off putting because invariably the author decides to make them precocious or overly chipper in the face of diversity. Not so in Tremain’s case, thank goodness. In her youth Mary has a pretty hard life and she just manages to bear it in the main, she isn’t overly chipper, she isn’t precocious, she just survives because it is human instinct. This isn’t to say that Tremain doesn’t use both the naivety and the black and white nature of a child’s mind to her advantage, as in the early parts of the novel she will often use a child’s eyes to highlight some of the things going on that they aren’t noticing but we are as adult readers.

I didn’t want to think about where Estelle was going. On the other side of Leiston there was a place called Mountview Asylum which we had sometimes passed on the way to the sea in Sonny’s van. I whispered once to Timmy that this was a loony bin where boys got sent if they couldn’t learn multiplication. Instead of cringing with fear as I’d hoped, he looked at the place, which was a converted stately home with red walls and flying turrets, and said: ‘Which bit of it is the actual bin?’ And we all laughed. Even Estelle. This is the only time that I can remember us all laughing together – like a proper family in an Austin with a picnic hamper – when Timmy asked the question about the Actual Bin.

As we read on we like Mary, not because she is different and going through a hard time (though that is what makes us root for her) but because she is a fully formed thoughtful young girl, who just happens to have been born in the wrong body and indeed in the wrong place and at the wrong time. I kept thinking of all the people who must lived through this in the past let alone now, as I read along with Mary’s struggle with trying to come to terms with and find out who she really is and where that journey takes her.

This alone in Tremain’s hands would have been a wonderful novel yet she does several things that take it up a notch or ten and make it truly exceptional. Firstly there is the fact that as we read Mary’s tale and meet all the people around her, even those who she merely passes in the streets of Swaithey, we soon discover that many of them too are outsiders in their varying ways. We have mothers who have had children out of wedlock and been left with merely people’s kindness and judgement to deal with, we have people hiding their sexuality, we have unrequited love, we have people with mental illnesses, alcoholics, spinsters who people gossip about and insinuate allsorts. I could go on. With all this going on Tremain both shows the utter hypocrisy of society and people within it. She also looks at the fact that often we all feel lost and alone and don’t talk about it, when if we did we might find out that actually other people feel lost too only for different reasons.

Rose Tremain gives us real insight into what is left unsaid through the style in which the book is written. We will often go from person to person in the village through an omnipresent narrator and then suddenly we will find ourselves in one of the characters heads as they narrate a section of each chapter, which are actually years from the 1950’s onwards, giving us additional insight from different characters vantage points. This is invariably through the Wards be it Mary, her brother Timmy or her mother, Estelle, and father Sonny ; all who give their own slant on their lives and their place in the ‘family’, though some proving quite uncomfortable to be in the mind of. I found Estelle to be particularly fascinating and could have read a lot more of what is unsaid between her and all those around her through her narrative.

Another thing that Tremain does which I have mentioned my love of before on this blog several times, is use the world around the characters to set the scene. The ramshackle and rundown farm in which the Wards live seems to reflect the family within it, as it gets more decrepit so do the relationships within it. The same with Gilbert and his mother, living in a house on the edge of a crumbling cliff face, as time goes by things become eroded, security is lost and the threat of danger comes ever closer. Even the weather and the atmosphere of the countryside often reflects a sign of things to come.

That night the storm came. In ten hours it rained seven inches. The apple trees were stripped of their blossom by the wind. The telephone lines and the power lines fell onto the lanes and fields. The shoulders of the ocean hurled themselves at the undefended shore and the cliffs at Minsmere began once again to slip and fall away.

As Mary grows up and the book follows her life it also literally grows both in scope and in the themes it brings up. As Mary starts turning more and more into Martin we follow life for those people still in her home village but also follow her as her world grows from her own village, to neighbouring towns (when she visits the wonderful, wonderful  Cord) to the cities and then even further afield. As the decades pass there is also a growth in technology and advancement in science, surgery and also society as the world changes. Here again Tremain plays a masterstroke as time moves on. Often the things going on in the background (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, Vietnam, the swinging sixties and even the world cup of ’66) reflecting the atmospheres or moments within certain characters lives. You often feel like every paragraph has an extra layer or two beneath the initial words and story it is telling you and this is what I am coming to admire more and more in Tremain’s writing.

Sacred Country is a novel that is as compelling as it is complex. It is a marvellous novel about a young person born in the wrong body and how hard it must be, it is also about much more than that. There is as cast a cast of characters and their secrets as there is themes about society and the world in which we live in and how it has changed over time. It is a book about those who are different and those who become outsiders be it from their situation or in some cases their own choices. It is about communication and what is left unsaid. It is also a book about acceptance. All this told without sentimentality, yet filled with heart and understanding.

It is official. Rose Tremain is swiftly becoming one of my very, very favourite writers and Sacred Country is a book that I will be thinking about for a long, long time. (I am quite desperate to discuss Irene and Pearl, Gilbert and Walter, and many more characters in more detail but didn’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!) I am thrilled to have so many more of her novels and short stories to go, including of course the final Trespassing with Tremain title Restoration which I will be talking about in three weeks time. In the meantime who else has read Sacred Country and what did you think?

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Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – Rose Tremain

One of the reasons that when I was choosing the list of books for Trespassing with Tremain I decided to include The Darkness of Wallace Simpson and Other Stories, was that it was the one book of Tremain’s that I bought before inheriting some of her others from Gran. I remember picking it up years ago simply because Wallis Simpson was a woman who had always fascinated me; as a person, her role in history and how people reacted to her, simple as that. I also thought it might be interesting to see how Tremain handles the short story, which many authors say is much harder than writing an actual novel.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2006, short stories, 224 pages, from my personal collection

The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is a rather fascinating collection of short stories in many ways. This set of twelve tales may happen all over the world in different time periods yet the main narrator of the tale, or protagonist, is undergoing some sort of darkness. It might be loss, it might be grief, it could be death surrounding them or being upon them, each tale has its own dark heart. This might make it sound like a sombre and rather macabre collection yet when you come away from the collection you feel anything but depressed. After all aren’t the best fairytales about just these things.

It could be tempting to give this collection the tag of ‘modern fairytale’ in part because there are often abandoned children, snowy landscapes and in one case, Moth, there is even a child who magically sprouts wings. Yet there is so much reality, and often a historical link, embedded in them that you feel these are the stories of ordinary human beings in unordinary situations of high drama within their lives. When we go through loss and/or grief we are of course at our most emotional extremes and life doesn’t seem quite real and yet it is. Tremain has a wonderful way of capturing that.

Some of the short stories are literally just that, short sharp bursts into a characters life. How It Stacks Up looks at a man who suddenly on his birthday realises he is utterly unhappy with his life. The Dead Are Only Sleeping starts with Nell answering the phone to discover her dad has died and relief fills her. The Over-Ride  is quite something as is takes in one person’s youth, marriage, widowhood and downward spiral in only ten pages. The aforementioned Moth is another such short wonder. Not a word is wasted, every single one counts.

In those days, there was a madhouse in our village.
It’s name was Waterford Asylum, but we knew it as ‘the Bin’.
It appeared to have no policy of selection or rejection. If you felt your own individual craziness coming on, you could present yourself at the door of the Bin and this door would open for you and kindly staff would take you in, and you would be sheltered from the cruel world. This was the 1950s. A lot of people were suffering from post-war sadness. In Norfolk, it seemed to be a sadness too complete to be assuaged by the arrival of rock’n’roll.
Soon after my sister, Aviva, died of influenza in 1951, my brother in law, Victor, turned up at the Bin with his shoes in a sack and a broken Doris Day record. He was one of the many voluntary loonies, driven mad by grief. His suitability as a resident of Waterford Asylum was measured by his intermittent belief that this record, which had snapped in half, like burned, brittle caramel crust, could be mended.

This is also the case in the longer tales and here, as shown in the opening sections of The Ebony Hand (which isn’t the ghost story you might be imagining, yet is marvellous regardless), Tremain has a wonderful way of managing to make a story within these stories in a mere paragraph of two. She does this again in the wonderful Loves Me, Loves Me Not which is one of the most bittersweet and heartbreaking love stories I have ever read, it will break your heart and then do it again. The same happens with The Cherry Orchard, with Rugs which is subtle, beautiful and devastating tale of an almost love affair. Both times you come away pretty close to being emotionally shattered and you thank Tremain for doing that to you.

If this makes it all sound like it is too dark or wrought, Tremain does what she did so marvellously in Trespass where she combines the dark with the very funny. Mentioning Moth again, which as you will have guessed was one of the standouts for me, we have the magical and bizarre image of a child who can fly away from its parents, and we also have a suicide which is greeted with a one liner that made me cackle and cackle. The same duality works in all the tales, Peerless also standing out as Badger, a nickname that stuck from childhood, adopts a Penguin who soon reminds him of someone from his past, it is funny and tear inducing, just what all the best tales are.

I also loved the way you could see what had inspired Tremain. You may be wondering why I have included a picture of James Tissot’s Holyday, well it is the inspiration behind Death of an Advocate which is another tale that had me giggling at the start before being shocked out of my laughter. History inspires many of the tales here too. The post war syndrome inspiring The Ebony Hand, one of the Word Wars inspiring Loves Me, Loves Me Not and the knocking down of the Berlin Wall inspiring The Beauty of the Dawn Shift. One tale, Nativity Story, is based on, erm, just that. Then of course there is the real life historical figure of Wallis Simpson who inspires the title tale.

Kissing her one minute, hitting her the next. A person out of a nightmare. There’s no talking to such a creature. Wallis can say words today, but why should she? Why should she waste her precious breath talking to this hag?
She turns her face away. Sees the girl in the apron staring at her with such a sad pitying look, it makes her weep. Fuck all these people. Piss in the damned pan and be done with them. Have them draw the curtains again. Go back to the darkness.

Before I round up the collection I want to pay special attention to The Darkness of Wallace Simpson itself which I think is one of the best short stories I have ever read. It is the longest of the collection at forty pages and yet is the one I rushed through the fastest before having to read it all over again once I had finished the collection. It brims, it is jam packed. Firstly there is the tale of Wallis herself, as she lies dying in Paris she is thinking over her life and Tremain somehow packs in the life of a woman in forty pages, yet I felt I had came away reading a biography. Her childhood, marriages and old ages are all covered, it is deftly done. There is also the tale of a woman always slightly on the back foot of life, from being disapproved of by family, then husbands, then the public and even her own careers. It looks at domestic abuse, grief, lack of freedom and love. It is just incredible.

Yet again Tremain has delivered for me in abundance. Her writing is clear, concise, vivid and just wonderful really. Each story stood out, they might have had a linking theme throughout but The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and Other Stories  is a wonderfully diverse collection where each story stands out.

I loved it and cannot wait to read her new collection, The American Lover on and off over the next few weeks as well as Sacred Country and Restoration as we carry on with Trespassing with Tremain. That is quite enough from me though for the moment, if you have read it what did you make of it? If you haven’t read it yet, read it.

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Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

The Road Home – Rose Tremain

So I lied to you all. I lied to you all and then to make it worse I let you all down. I promised that I would have the review of this up, as one of the Trespassing with Tremain titles, last Sunday (after having delayed it once before, what kind of monster am I?) however it has taken until now. Do I feel bad? Not really, you see I was enjoying The Road Home so much and finding the writing so brilliant I didn’t want to rush it. So I let it, and its characters, just engulf me for a little bit longer. Though I have to admit, I did almost fall out with Tremain at one point, I may even have been a little bit cross.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 365 pages, borrowed from the library

Lev is a man who, after the recent death of his wife, is travelling from Eastern Europe to the UK in search of work so that he can provide a better life for his mother, daughter and even some of his friends if they need help. A little like Dick Whittington he sees London as a place of streets filled with gold, or at least gold coins as part of the wealthy West. His dream soon becomes a grim reality as we follow his journey upon arrival in London where upon he finds a cold and confusing place, somewhere he realises he is ill prepared and poorly funded for. We follow him as he tries to make it in this new world, often wondering if such a thing can be possible, whilst his friends and family struggle in the land he left behind.

Within a very few chapters you can see why this novel won the Orange Prize back in 2008. Not only is it stunningly written, it is just brimming with themes and questions. It is also one of those books that really looks at the state of the UK and the experience not only of immigrants, which of course it highlights, but of anyone who is living on the breadline, or in the bits of society we don’t like to linger on, and trying to find their way in the life, or to be more precise in Lev’s case Europe.

‘Aren’t you afraid, like, Immigration could come here and whack you down the nick?’
‘Whack me down the nick? What is that?’
‘He knows nothin’, bless ‘im. You don’t know nothing’, luv. That Immigration, they’ve got officers everywhere, in disguise. I could be from them, for all you know. Then you’re done for. You’re back on the first plane.’
‘Yes? Back to what place?’
‘To wherever you came from: Bela-whatsit, Kazak-wherever.’

Of course it is the immigrant experience that is the focus of the novel as we follow Lev. It is this which makes the narrative so gripping as Tremain unflinchingly looks at how someone in a completely new and unnerving situation and surroundings. As we follow Lev from a bedsit, to posting leaflets, to the sink of one of London’s finest restaurants and beyond (no spoilers) we feel his vulnerability, see how he gets used and wonder how on earth anyone can go through all of that? Here I should mention that not once was I aware, once I was in, that Lev’s story was being written by a British woman, it all felt so real and chimed with what I have heard from friends, and indeed my ex, who were immigrants in this new United Kingdom. That is masterful in itself.

Yet there is also so much more going on. I love books that feature old people and old people’s homes. This is not some weird fetish I promise. This country is brimming, I nearly said overflowing but that sounds awful, with elderly people and people are living longer. For some reason as a society we don’t talk about them (rather like European immigrants I guess) and often shut them away in homes physically and literally. These people have done so much for us, yet these people are often left lonely and forgotten. They are also brimming with stories. Throw the ‘homes’ they are put into, and all the things that brings; fighting for independence and against authority, simply giving up, becoming angry and resentful, not wanting to live with people they don’t know, being bored out of their minds, etc and you have endless opportunities for a writer and lots of stories to tell and points to make as Tremain does.

Lev had asked her what she’d do there and she told him that she’d help prepare a Christmas meal and then they’d play games and have a sing-song. She said: ‘They’ll all get squiffy on Asti Spumante and float backwards in time, but I don’t care. When you’re old, nobody touches you, nobody listens to you – not in this bloody country. So that’s what I do: I touch and listen. I comb their hair. I play clapping games with them. That’s a laugh and a half. I hear about life in the post-war prefab or in some crumbling stately pile. I play my guitar and sometimes that makes them cry. My favourite person there is a woman called Ruby. She was brought up by nuns in India. She can still remember the convent school and her favourite nun, Sister Bendicta – every detail, every feeling.’

That is not all, there is more. No, seriously. Tremain also looks at a host of other things. She looks at grief and how we deal with it. She looks at love and infatuation in all its forms. She discusses the cult of celebrity and ‘the rich’. She looks at class. She looks at marriage and divorce. She looks at friendship and fatherhood. I could go on. The one other main theme I think I should mention though is that she looks at home and what that word really means and how we make our own.

So why did I almost fall out with Tremain? Well there was one thing that bothered me and was the only time where I suddenly said to myself ‘oh yeah, this is a story it’s not real’, because I had become so engrossed, and that is when she makes Lev do something violent that seems totally out of character. I initially thought I had missed something in his back story because for me he had just been this good guy who was working his arse of and the system was still messing him up, two steps forward one step back. Next thing I was thinking he was a nasty bugger and it jarred. I can see why Tremain did it, Lev becomes rather passionate about someone or something, yet this seemed very extreme. It caused a wobble, thankfully one that was soon stabilised by the prose and the turn in the plot which I wasn’t expecting. I know some people found this too jarred, as the book takes a possible hopeful twist, yet I went along with it and believed in it. Crisis averted.

As you have probably guessed I thought that The Road Home was rather wonderful. It is one of those wonderful books that makes you despair at society and how everything about it works. It is also a book about how we deal with struggles, being forgotten and/or looking for a place to belong. Tremain creates characters that you care about and love; Lev, Rudi, Christy, Ruby and ones that you think are utter bastards, who I won’t give away. It is a fully formed world which we all inhabit and, I think, makes us question it and want better for ourselves and others within it. All of this whilst also being a bloody marvellous story that is brilliantly written.

I am officially becoming a complete Tremain fan and can totally see why Gran raved about her as much as she did, so thanks Gran for making me read her even if it is too late to talk about her with you. However, as is always a delight, I can talk about it with all of you. Who else had read The Road Home and what did you make of it? For more opinions check Kim and Lizzy’s thoughts. Don’t forget next in Trespassing with Tremain is The Darkness of Wallace Simpson and Other Stories which we will be discussing on Sunday October the 5th, I promise. So do join in if you fancy it.

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Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

Trespass – Rose Tremain

And so to the first of the books that I (and fingers crossed hopefully a lot of you) are reading for Trespassing With Tremain, a way of me remembering my book loving Gran and in a strange way reading along with her through another of her favourite authors and one who she was always telling me I really should have read. Why start with Trespass? Well, it was the book of Rose Tremain’s that Gran kept saying that I simply had to read as she thought it was the most me, which as you will see I found rather interesting after finally having read it…

Vintage Books, hardback, 2010, fiction, 272 pages, inherited from Granny Savidge

Trespass is one of those infinitely clever novels that pleases, perplexes and plays with its reader. As it opens we follow a young, rather spoilt, girl Melodie who is struggling to fit in at her knew school and so on a trip out runs away into the countryside where she discovers something horrendous amongst the tranquillity. What she has discovered we have no idea because we are swiftly taken away from this moment into the lives of two pairs of siblings, soon beginning to realise that in some way one or both of these siblings have something to do with whatever it is that poor Melodie discovers, but what and how?

From the beginning of Trespass I have to say I was hooked in with the mystery and the promise of darkness yet of course a book has to deliver far more than just those two things to really stand out and Trespass does that in spades. The mystery is very much at the fore and then gets sent brooding in the background awaiting its moment as we then get caught up in the worlds of two siblings. Firstly Audrun Lunel, who lives alone in a isolated in the woodlands in a ramshackle bungalow on the edges of her old family home Mas Lunel, now inhabited by her alcoholic brother Aramon. Secondly Anthony Verey, a man once famous for his antique dealings but who has fallen on harder times and is looking to escape his life in London and so heads to the south of France and his sister Veronica.

Of course as Trespass goes on you wonder how on earth these two pairs of siblings will become entwined in something that we know will end darkly. It isn’t until we discover that Aramon is keen to sell off Mas Lunel, much to Audrun’s horror, and Anthony is very much looking for somewhere to live that these people’s lives entwine for a moment. Even then Tremain cleverly keeps us guessing as to what will come because what I thought was going to happen didn’t, in fact the book kept twisting tighter and tighter as it went on.  I don’t want to give too much away though, suffice to say I had to read it in one sitting because I wanted to know what the heck was going to happen, to whom and how.

Episodes, the doctor called them. Short episodes of the brain. And the doctor – or doctors, for it wasn’t always the same one – gave her pills and she took them. She lay in her bed, swallowing pills. She put them on her tongue, like a Communion wafer. She tried to imagine herself transfigured by them. She lay in the Cevenol night, listening to the scoop-owl, to the breathing of the land, trying to envisage a chemical river in her blood. She saw this river as a marbled swirl of purple, crimson and white; the colours drifted in skeins, expanded into almost-recognisable shapes, like clouds. Sometimes, she wondered whether these envisagings were inappropriate. She’d also been told that her mind was liable to ‘inappropriate ideas’. It could imagine terrible things.

As Trespass unravels Tremain does something that l love, she makes the characters and their histories and relationships unravel with it. Yet with the two sets of siblings Tremain makes this all the more heightened. As Anthony flees to Veronica we watch a pair of siblings where one has always looked out for the other, V being the big protective sister. Yet once in the same space this relationship becomes cloying, particularly for V’s lover (the brilliantly named) Kitty Meadows who has never liked Anthony and has always vied for V’s attention with. Does familial love always beat passionate love, can you compete with someone who has been in your lovers life infinitely?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the selling of Mas Lunel is the final straw in Audrun and Aramon’s strained relationship. The siblings have not been close for years despite the fact that Audrun lives on the edge of the land of Mas Lunel, she only goes into her old family home if she absolutely must. What is it that keeps her away and why can two siblings who live so close be so utterly apart? The dynamics and mysteries within the mystery unravel slowly but surely, making the novel only the darker and the characters all the more compelling.

What also makes Trespass compelling are the themes it looks at. Most obviously is the theme of sibling relationships, which brings in family histories and secrets which are always a fertile ground for a novel. There is also the theme of sexuality with both Veronica and her ‘friend’ Kitty but also Arthur and his certain secret proclivity. There is also the sense of trespassing you might think that sounds rather obvious yet Tremain looks at this in many ways. Trespassing on the boundaries of land or personal space, trespassing on relationships, trespassing on other countries and their heritage with the theme of rich Europeans buying French land meaning locals can’t. I could go on. At its heart though, both with the siblings secrets and Melodie (don’t forget about her), there is the theme of how the things we witness or experience as children affect us in later life.

In all this darkness there is a wicked sense of humour which makes it all the more delightfully gothic in its tone. There is the same darkness in Tremain’s humour which offers some light(er) relief in parts both in some of the peripheral characters and their set pieces, like Lloyd Palmer and his accidental pant wetting when laughing which made me giggle very loudly. You will also often find yourself often smiling wryly as Tremain gets her characters to do something we all wish we would do and never dare.

Out of her kitchen window, she watched him toiling in the afternoon heat. Sun rays bounced off his bald head. He was a small man, but full of petty cruelty, she could tell, proud of his ability to wound. Audrun crumbled some black earth from the geranium pot on her kitchen window sill and threw it in with the ground coffee because she knew this could have the power to quell her anxiety, to watch the surveyor imbibing geranium compost and never knowing it.

Trespass is an utterly marvellous novel. One that I don’t really feel I could do full justice without writing something almost as long as the book itself – which I should add manages all the above in just over 250 pages. It is a beautifully written and intricately crafted gothic tale, which has a slight evocation of a fairy tale in some ways, and also the pace and mystery of a thriller. I cannot wait to read more of Tremain’s work.

So you see it seems Gran was right, Trespass is indeed a very ‘me’ book. I am only cross that I didn’t listen to her a few years ago and read it with her at the time as we could have had a real natter about it, and about why she would pair me with such a dark twisty book? It has also broken the spell of being unable to write a review, which has been a bit of a black cloud over me of late. Anyway, who else has read Trespass and what did you make of it? Had you read Tremain before, if so how does this compare and if not what did you think of this as a first foray? I am very much looking forward to The Road Home, which just happens to be the next Trespassing with Tremain title, as I think I might become quite the Tremain fan!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Review, Rose Tremain, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books