Sebastian Smee

Shady people in the sun

The characters in Rose Tremain’s deft new novel are almost all remarkably unpleasant.

Shady people in the sun
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Rose Tremain

Chatto, pp. 253, £

The characters in Rose Tremain’s deft new novel are almost all remarkably unpleasant.

The characters in Rose Tremain’s deft new novel are almost all remarkably unpleasant. Not just wicked or selfish, but strangely pathetic, too. In fact, their nastiness is so ingrained and so unignorable that one begins to suspect a degree of authorial malice.

Of course, Tremain is too good to present caricatures: her characters are all amply supplied with motives, credible back stories and the appropriate quotient of human quiddity. But from start to finish, an acrid atmosphere hovers over her every description, and it permeates not just the characters but the main actions of the plot.

Let’s just say it’s not quite what you’d expect from a novel set in the south of France.

One of the characters, Anthony, is an aging antiques dealer. He has a taste for casual sexual encounters with much younger men. His business, having once enjoyed great success, is now failing.

He decides to visit his sister, Veronica, an expert in gardening who lives with her female lover, Kitty, a watercolorist, in the Cévennes. Kitty can’t stand Anthony and his superior, preening ways. Veronica, on the other hand, feels protective toward him, and her sisterly love sparks jealousy in Kitty, who is rather ruthlessly depicted as self-deluding, talentless and emotionally infantile.

But wait until you meet Aramon! A bullying drunk who used to conspire with his father to sexually abuse his sister, the delightful Aramon lives in an isolated farmhouse, the Mas Lunel. Within sight, on land that was inherited and divided between them, lives the blighted sister, Audrun. Older now, she is psychologically scarred and prone to ‘episodes’, but she still has her wits.

The Mas Lunel soon attracts the possessive eye of Anthony, who has decided to follow his sister’s example and make a new life for himself in France. Aramon — salivating over the huge amount of money the agent says his house will command — is desperate to sell.

Suddenly, Anthony goes missing, after which, with creepy inexorability, everything begins to curdle.

Is it a thriller? It could be, except that, as so often with Tremain, it’s the psychology of thwarted desire, haunted pasts and mouth-watering dreams of revenge that seems to matter more than the thrill of suspense.

Tremain describes the landscape, the houses, the entire setting of her novel with an unsentimental precision that is utterly convincing. But again and again I was arrested by her impulse to thrust our noses into her characters’ most repulsive actions, their most selfish, mean-spirited and murderous daydreams, their shocking self-absorption.

No one will be surprised to hear that all this horridness — starving dogs, toxic enemas, regurgitated food, decaying bodies — affords considerable pleasure. And yet at times I felt it was laid on too thickly; I felt manipulated, responding with diminishing laughter and finally indifference.

At one point, one of the characters becomes aware that her vengeful thoughts ‘chose her. And not only thoughts. She was a vessel, a receptacle for unimaginably terrible actions.’ Authors and artists often describe their creative processes in similar terms. The results are not always ‘unimaginably terrible,’ but there is a degree to which the content of their creativity seems to be out of their hands.

Tremain is such an assured and measured writer that it’s hard to think of her as anything less than utterly conscious and in control. But perhaps the most fascinating thing about this book is the way that nastiness keeps bubbling, unbidden, to the surface.