I’ve been hooked on Rose Tremain’s fiction recently, primarily because I recently saw the film that was made of her novel Trespass. I liked the movie, and so I ordered the book. What struck me about the writing (and of course film versions of books are always changed, edited, rearranged and so on) was how resonant the language was. Sentence to sentence, Tremain uses metaphor and simile in a way that blends with the setting and pushes the story forward, such as this snippet: “it was just an abstraction hanging there on the end of the paragraph, like an over-ripe fig about the drop off onto Bougainville’s wretched Tahitian gravel!” (135). She’s referring to earlier events and characters here, and the speaker gains layers of character as she thinks. There are also subtle moments, like the description of the family Bible, which “had exerted its holy magnetism upon everything that seemed to plead its own bureaucratic importance or sentimental preciousness” (78).
OK, so I was struck by the language. What surprised me was how inconclusive the ending was, as though Tremain had gotten a little bored with some of her characters and let them drop. Hmm.
Then I picked up a copy of her short story collection The American Lover. Again, I really enjoyed the language in these stories, but I found, over and over, that the endings just sort of, well, ended. The plots weren’t very well developed, though the characters were, and I kept thinking that perhaps these were trial runs at novels.
Then I began to think about my own writing process. I, too, begin with a character and a setting, not necessarily a plot. And I feel frustrated when I read a novel that seems largely plot-driven. I want a character who is deeply, personally developed, who changes or thinks and does crazy things, foolish things, wondrously smart things. I want a setting that I can immerse myself in, feel and see and taste and smell the flora and fauna, the food and drink.
And I went back to Tremain’s stories. In fact, they now seem to me brilliantly finished portraits–not sketches and not trial runs, but fully drawn portraits of people in particular places and times, with deeply-conceived ideas about how such people might behave.
That’s really what I want in fiction, and Tremain delivers.
Here’s my review on Goodreads. Enjoy!