As Valerie Martin's Trespass opens, Chloe Dale is lunching in a chic Manhattan restaurant just before the second Iraq war. She is there to meet her son Toby's girlfriend, Salome Drago, for the first time. Salome, an intense, brusque Catholic Croat, is a refugee, along with her brother and father, from the Balkans. To Chloe, she is also "the vengeful orphan, the ungrateful outsider, the coming retribution of the great underclass" who mirrors Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, the book Chloe, an award-winning engraver, is currently 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," says Martin.
In fact, The Realms of Light was the original title of Trespass ("where we feel safe and civilized, and yet often the dark intrudes" --Jim Morrison). The book observes the rift between ideals and actions, the division between pragmatists and fanatics with two quotations: "Those who restrain passion do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained," once taped to teenage Chloe's bedroom door, and "The best lack all conviction," recalled by her husband Brendan, at a peace rally.
The second half of Yeats' line-- "The worst are full of passionate intensity"-- is not mentioned, but Trespass observes that extreme attitudes often contain their opposites. A socially conscious liberal, Chloe's latent xenophobia takes hold of her immediately and viscerally upon meeting Salome. The interloper is a "hornet-headed girl," whose slightest glance makes Chloe think of "a spider darting out crazily from some black recess in the basement."
Closer to home-on her own property, in fact--more foreboding and antipathy is inspired by a "foreigner" who hunts deer in the woods. She feels this encroachment keenly, and tries to put a stop to it. Her husband prefers not to make a fuss. "But it's our forest," Chloe protests.
The book is narrated in the voices of the three Dales, and their varied points-of-view keep the reader unsettled. Menace stalks the story, but is not often realized: the hunter isn't the dangerous presence he seems, Salome is not an opportunistic vixen, cheating on Toby with one of their friends, or plotting to take Chloe's place. These unfulfilled fictional expectations lend an unstable atmosphere in which anything may happen, and nothing is what it seems. It may also make some readers feel cheated or manipulated, as they witness boundaries of class and culture shift uneasily, then reconfigure.
An unidentified first person narrative breaks into the main narrative from time to time, gaining importance in the narrative just as Chloe suffers a fatal accident. The voice belongs to Jelena, Salome's mother, a victim of the horrors of war. After learning that her father has lied about her death, Salome-in a typically misleading exit--returns to Zagreb to find Jelena, then to Trieste, Italy. She is soon followed by her husband Toby, and then Brendan. A convenient ending, neatly tied and abrupt, follows at length.
Martin explains her interest in swift endings:"I noticed when I would finish reading a novel that I felt I had been dumped out of really rapidly, I liked the feeling. 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."
This meditation on the limits of American inclusiveness is a good example of moral fiction, and Valerie Martin, with irony and intelligence, holds a mirror to some of the most pressing concerns of our day.