Valerie Martin puts liberal America to a personal test in her new parable of a novel, "Trespass." She brings a beguiling young Croatian woman into a seemingly open-minded Hudson Valley family, forever altering the lives of a mother, father and son -- one of whom will never accept her.
"What do you know about her? Is she even a citizen? Is she after a green card? She's trying to trap you. . . . She's more interested in this house than she is you. . . . You're being played for a fool."
The words, indelible in 21-year-old Tony Dale's head, belong to his mother, Chloe Dale, a respected children's illustrator whose instant dislike and suspicion of Salome Drago seems to come out of nowhere and quickly poisons every aspect of Chloe's heretofore comfortable life. Veteran anti-war protester and purported champion of human rights, Chloe is suddenly and inexplicably beside herself -- seeing darkness not only in the exotic Salome but also in a poacher she encounters on the Dales' property, and in the sketches she is preparing for a young readers' version of "Wuthering Heights."
Her husband Brendan Dale, a professor and historian, watches Chloe's uncharacteristic foreboding with growing concern. "She feels her territory has been invaded and she is under attack," he tells himself. "She wants to throw the intruders out, go back to the way things were, but this, she must realize, is not an option, and so she's panicked -- the outsiders are insiders now, staking their claims."
Martin starts out small here, building our awareness over time of a much larger picture -- of prejudice and cultural and material differences; of war and its never-ending fallout; of human resistance before human possibility. She grows her cast of characters with a parallel story of a Croatian woman caught up in the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s, a woman who will become crucial to the whole of "Trespass."
While Chloe, at work in her studio, asks, "Exactly how dark is Heathcliff?" the Croatian woman is recalling how, "One day you get up and look out the window and there's some small change, something so small you might not notice it if you weren't already tense from waiting, a gate ajar in a neighbor's yard, the smell of rubber burning, a dog whimpering at his own front door. It's here. The war is here. It has begun."
The chasm between the two womens' experiences is so vast as to be insurmountable. But their children, Toby and Salome, are smitten with one another -- and Salome is with child. Their families must come together. With clarity, and often penetrating wit, Martin gives us each character's point of view -- making "Trespass" a humbling read, for there is no black and white here, no right or wrong, not under the circumstances (which unfold and unfold).
At one point, Chloe looks at her work on "Wuthering Heights" and sees in Heathcliff what we assume she believes of Salome as refugee: "He wants to get even with those who took him in and failed to love him. No, he's not the romantic vision of an overheated female imagination. He's something new: the vengeful orphan, the ungrateful outsider, the coming retribution of the great underclass."
Martin's "Trespass" takes us from New York's rural Hudson Valley to Eastern Europe and Italy. The book introduces us to the passionate Branko Drago -- Salome's father, the "Oyster King" of Louisiana -- and to his son, the fierce, vengeful Andro Drago. Jelena Drago, Salome's mother -- who is found in Trieste -- is aloof, philosophical and reluctant to speak of her war-torn past.
And we, completely caught up in this taut, nearly-perfect new novel, are rapt -- and unprepared for a shocking turn of events that reshuffles the deck for everyone. Martin establishes the book's undercurrent of fear, darkness and suspense with corresponding prose -- as in Chloe's description of her home's environs at dawn: "the car crouches like a sleeping animal, its nose resting in the drift of leaves from the beech, now bare ..."
Martin keeps us mindful throughout the book of "intrusions" great and small, real and perceived, inevitable, life-changing -- and here. Even the timeline -- the United States is about to invade Iraq -- is threatening. Brendan, who is writing a book about the Fifth Crusade, leaves a particularly pretentious academic gathering only to find himself in a bar watching several TV screens as the Iraq War begins. "Our fate is ever to rush into the past as if we thought it was the future," he muses.
There are no answers in "Trespass," which is both moving and disturbing and can be read on several levels. In that sense, it is a book to be reckoned with -- for it challenges us all: What would I do? What would you do? Did we forget where we came from, forget what we say we stand for? Never mind that Martin confuses us, at first, with the memories of the Croatian woman -- which are interspersed, in italics, throughout. Or that her book's resolution (although we love it) is far too tidy.
"Trespass" is a profound cautionary tale for our times. As the prescient Jelena says in the novel, "Opposites attract. Yes. Like magnets."
Ignore that today, and suffer the consequences.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.
By Valerie Martin
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday
288 pages, $25