Valerie Martin is anything but an autobiographical writer. Her previous novel, Property (2003), which beat out books by Zadie Smith, Carol Shields and Donna Tartt to win the coveted Orange Prize, is set on a Louisiana sugar plantation in 1828 and tells the disturbing story of the loveless marriage between the plantation owner and his wife and the morally fraught relationship between the wife and the female slave she was given as a wedding gift.
Her 1990 novel Mary Reilly, which was made into a movie starring John Malkovich and Julia Roberts that Martin does not particularly like (and in truth, the book is far, far better than the film), is a brilliant recasting of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story told from the point of view of a household servant.
And even her rather amazing new novel Trespass, which tells an emotionally and politically charged tale of the elemental conflicts that are stirred to life when Brendan and Chloe Dale's only child, Toby, falls in love with a Croatian refugee named Salome Drago, does not in any obvious way follow the contours of Martin's own life.
Yet in conversation, one is struck by the way in which Martin takes bits and pieces of seemingly ordinary personal experience and coolly transmutes them into fictional events of extraordinary power.
"I had a poacher," Martin says, describing the origins of the book during a call to her home in Millbrook, New York. Martin and her partner, translator John Cullen, bought an old, four-bedroom Victorian house there not long ago. Before that, they lived in a house with a meadow and a wood very much like the one described in Trespass. "I did exactly what Chloe does in the novel: I walked out and went up to the poacher and said, 'Don't hunt here.' He had an accent so I guess I had a foreign poacher. I was interested in how I responded to that."
Martin's response to her trespasser was remarkably layered, as is her novel. Chloe Dale's response, on the other hand, is swift and visceral. Chloe is an educated, middle-class American mother whose husband, Brendan, is a university history professor on sabbatical while he slowly completes a book about Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and the Fifth Crusade. Chloe herself is an artist hard at work on the illustrations for an expensive edition of Wuthering Heights. Chloe sees her poacher as a threat and reacts, just as she sees Toby's new girlfriend Salome as a threat and reacts.
"One of the things I had been thinking about when I started was how often I've noticed that for my friends who have sons, their sons' girlfriends are never good enough," says Martin, the mother of one child, a daughter who now teaches ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "I've seen it often enough to make me think that this is some powerful force that they can't control. I'll often meet the young woman who has been described as just impossible' and she seems perfectly nice to me. But then I don't have a son."
Family conflict is not the only kind of uncontrollable force that permeates Trespass. Martin began composing the novel writing her scenes by hand on paper, then editing and typing them into a computer at the rate of about a page a day just as the Iraq war began. "I was thinking about the lead-up to the war and war in general," she says. "My original notion was that the poacher was Lebanese and I was going to write about his life. So I read a great deal about the Lebanese civil war, which was really complex. Then John, my partner, who used to work for oil companies as an abstracter in Louisiana, mentioned that the oyster fishermen down at the bottom of the [Mississippi] river were Croatian. Several generations of my mother's family were all from New Orleans, and I grew up there, but I hadn't known that and I got very interested in it. That's where the Croatian strand of the novel came from."
That strand the dark repercussions of a horrific, genocidal war on Salome Drago's family intrudes increasingly on the Dales' rather sunny life as the novel progresses. "I was conscious early on that the book was about both the fear and the attraction of foreignness, which I think Americans feel particularly," Martin says. And in that, Martin finds a parallel with Wuthering Heights, the book Chloe is illustrating. "It's a book about what my book is about, which is fear of foreignness and the ingratitude of the upstart. It's also a book I've always loved because I think it's profoundly sociological and at the same time mythical. The notion of people who live in the light and those who come from the dark is so important to that book, and I liked the idea that Americans live in realms of light and live in fear of the intrusion of the realms of darkness."
Martin weaves her themes of darkness and light deftly. Trespass is a book that keeps you up reading at night and stays in your thoughts throughout the day. It is full of surprises, large and small. Yet despite its complexity, the story moves swiftly, with sparkling clarity and remarkable compression, especially near the end.
"I noticed when I would finish reading a novel that I felt I had been dumped out of really rapidly, I liked the feeling," Martin says, explaining her interest in swift endings to her novels. "So for a long time I've had a routine when I get within three or four scenes of the end: I try to imagine how many scenes I can do it in, then try to do it in one less. But the ending should also come naturally out of the story. I just try to follow the story. I don't think about readers, because when you try to please them, that way madness lies. I'm always just trying to write the book I want to read."
Which in the case of Trespass works out very nicely for other readers, too.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.