Valerie Martin
(Nan A. Talese/
Jelena is a Croatian, married to Branko. But then come the Serbs, and she falls for one of them, Milan. Bad move: this is war. One doesn't do that in the middle of a war. She is carted off, ends up in an abandoned restaurant, where the soldiers come, regularly, to violate her and the other female prisoners. Branko, runs away to the United States, ends up as a shrimper in Louisana.

Meanwhile, Toby's mother and father live in a huge spread in New York State. Chloe does drawings for children's books; Brendan teaches medieval history. Toby is off to college, where he falls in with (and in love with) Salome. Have we heard that name before? Can you remember who all these people are? I certainly can't.

Salome is a looker and Chloe can't stand her, does a cartoon of her with bugs for hair: "The hornet-headed girl. Run for your life."

Salome is daughter to Jelana and Branko. Time for a collision of cultures. Upper New York state vs. Louisana vs. Serbia.

§     §     §

It's an interesting pot, and author Martin knows how to keep the juices flowing, though she does push her characters around a bit. Kills off Chloe in the middle, gets Salome pregnant by Toby, ships everyone off to Trieste of all dismal places.

She's at her best with the thickest mixes ... shrimp gumbo. Toby tries to be a man at a Creole/Serb beer-and-shrimp fest in the bayou. He gets beat up. After the death of Chloe, Brendan courts Salome's mother Jelena there in Trieste. Jelena turns up late in Trespass, but she turns out to be the most beguiling of them all. The book dwells on her travails, perhaps overdoes them. The Serbs and the Croats have been feeding off each other's miseries for centuries, and Jelena is in the middle. She survives and stays around to be bemused by Brendan.

"You ask so many questions," she says. "I never met such a man." He dumps his soon-to-be-published study of Charlemagne; instead, he becomes Jelena's personal historian, writes her sad story. He is somewhat of a nag, too. When she wants another cigarette, he lights a match and says, "Your life is like this flame and those cigarettes are extinguishing it." She responds, charmingly,

    You Americans. You taught the world to smoke. Humphrey Bogart, all those movies. now no one can smoke. Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. but your mission is doomed to failure.

History trespasses here and there in Trespass, moves the plot along, gives the author a chance to sneak in some prejudices. This, on the fall of Saddam, "It's always good news when a statue of a dictator is pulled down, though what follows can be alarming."

    The Romans, ever frugal, recycled their statues, changing the nameplates when one tyrant fell from favor and another rose to take his place.

--- Indi Higham
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