The intruder

A sexy Croatian college student disrupts the lives of a family of well-meaning New York liberals in Valerie Martin's "Trespass."

Published October 1, 2007 11:35AM (EDT)

Valerie Martin's new novel, "Trespass," is a queasy book; it shifts under its reader's feet like the pitching deck of a ship at sea. Nothing is secure in the world inhabited by its characters, no relationship can be counted on. Since one strand of the narrative takes place during the war following the breakup of Yugoslavia, that might not seem particularly notable; wars are nothing if not chaotic. But the other strand, the main strand, is set in New York during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and that milieu turns out to be just as treacherous, if not as violently so. Invasion, Martin observes, happens everywhere, all the time.

For Chloe Dale, a middle-aged artist who lives a comfortable life in rural upstate New York, the trespasser is Salome Drago, a sexy Croatian refugee who came to the U.S. with her widowed father as a little girl. Chloe's son Toby, her only child, has fallen in love with Salome, a fellow student at Columbia, and Chloe, as usual, doesn't approve of his choice; she's never thought any of the women he's dated were good enough for him. But Salome -- tough, blunt and shrewd -- isn't like Toby's previous girlfriends. She is, as Chloe's historian husband, Brendan, suspects, "more than a match" for Toby's mom.

Meanwhile, Chloe obsesses about a poacher, a foreigner of unidentifiable origin, who's been shooting rabbits on their land. A few ambiguous events -- a mangled rabbit found on her studio porch, a mysterious injury sustained by the family cat -- convince her that the poacher poses a real threat, but Brendan disagrees. Everyone is unsettled, possibly with good cause, but also possibly not. Toby suspects Salome of fooling around with one of his friends. Brendan wonders which of his colleagues at the university put a clipping about an award won by a rival scholar in his mailbox. Finally, Salome begins to wonder if her beloved father has told her the truth about her mother's death.

The literary counterpoint to this seething mass of uncertainties is Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights," a novel for which Chloe is engraving a set of illustrations. Salome is the obvious parallel to Heathcliff, the surly changeling whose passions disrupt two households for three generations. The configurations of the relationships in "Trespass," like those in "Wuthering Heights," keep dissolving and reforming, the victim becomes the victimizer, the excluder becomes the excluded. Brontë's novel also reminds Chloe of her own defiant youth, when she rebelled against the "death in life" she felt in her parents' house by taping aphorisms in praise of unrestrained passion to her bedroom door.

Like all of the characters in "Trespass," Chloe is a well-meaning liberal; the novel's characters attend protest rallies against the war and intermittently break into anti-Bush tirades. None of this makes her any more open to Salome, or able to see that her own son is living out the credo she celebrated when she was his age. Primitive, territorial instinct, Martin seems to be suggesting, has a tendency to trump principle, and few of us stand ready to hand over our treasures when confronted by our own version of Heathcliff, "the vengeful orphan, the ungrateful outsider, the coming retribution of the great underclass."

Martin is an expert at combining simmering menace with a cool, merciless irony about the human character. Chloe is unreasonable, but never entirely unlikable. Anyone who has ever suffered jealousy can't afford to reject her out of hand -- not unless they're willing to forswear self-knowledge entirely. Besides, there is something a little sinister and calculating about Salome. After the poacher situation resolves itself in an unexpected, yet predictably catastrophic way, the novel's relationships once again reconfigure and the intruder receives a sizable dose of her own medicine.

There are political messages embedded in "Trespass," having to do with strangers inheriting what we think of as our stuff -- our land, our children, our love. This element feels superfluous to me; already the references to Saddam Hussein seem to have dried out enough to blow away in the first stiff wind. The situations the novel deals with, the perpetual falling away of the old and the advent of the new, are eternal, but not knowing how the Iraq war will end makes "Trespass" seem unresolved now in a way it won't in, say, 10 years. For now, however, Martin has poised her story at a historical moment filled with uncertainty, like the uncertainty Brendan sees in marriage itself, a "minefield," as he views it, where "you just have to pick your way through it and hope you don't get blown to bits."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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