Writers & Company

'Each novel is a journey.' Rose Tremain explores the exile experience in her vivid, engaging fiction

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company is revisiting interviews with past winners.
Rose Tremain is an English novelist and short story writer. (David Kirkham)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the U.K.'s Women's Prize for Fiction. To celebrate that milestone, Writers & Company is revisiting interviews with past winners.

From East Anglia, to Switzerland, to the Cévennes in France, Rose Tremain's novels often travel to far-flung places, revolving around the cultural collisions experienced by an outsider. 

Her novel The Road Home, which won the 2008 Women's Prize for Fiction, centres on the story of an Eastern European migrant who begins working as a dishwasher in a London restaurant.     

In 2010 she came out with Trespass — a kind of psychological thriller about brothers and sisters, and an atmospheric fable set in the south of France. Exploring the ways in which the past haunts both the present and the future, Trespass is a reflection on life after the age of 60. 

Tremain's 2016 novel, The Gustav Sonata, won the National Jewish Book Award, the Ribalow Prize for Jewish Fiction and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. Set in Switzerland, it probes questions of political and personal neutrality before and after the Second World War. 

In 2018, Tremain published a memoir called Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life. Her new novel, Islands of Mercy, set in 19th-century Borneo, will be released in the U.K. in September 2020. 

Tremain spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about The Road Home and Trespass in 2010. They spoke again in 2017, about The Gustav Sonata.  

Places I remember

"I've always been attracted to wildernesses of all kinds. It's partly to do with the particularity of a wilderness: for the people who are the incomers, it's very difficult for them to get to know it. It has its own geography, its own weather, its own sort of private language. There's something secretive and yet wild about it. That's very fruitful terrain for fiction.

"I've always felt at ease to some extent in different parts of France. My parents were quite Francophile and they used to take us to Brittany on holiday.

I've always been very attracted to wildernesses of all kinds... there's something secretive and yet wild about them.

"These were camping holidays, which of course we adored. I remember, in those days, that France used to smell so different. The minute your boat arrived, you knew you were completely somewhere else. 

"It seems to me, now in the 21st century, that Europe suddenly smells all the same." 

'Wild, beautiful and full of woe'

"In The Road Home, a character sees a lake, which has been artificially made by a dam. Underneath the lake is the village where they once lived. So they're looking at a kind of drowned world in a way. And of course, if you're in exile, and you leave your beloved place, it becomes a kind of drowned world in your mind.

"These questions of exile come into a lot of my books. 

The plight of the exile who is homesick is just one of the things that moves me most. It also frightens me.

"People leave home and leave their familiar world to embark on a journey — which is probably going to be, or they hope is going to be, a journey of salvation. 

"But of course, all journeys are arduous to some extent. When you're journeying away from home, they take on a special arduousness. The plight of the exile who is homesick is just one of the things that moves me most. It also frightens me. It's a subject for fiction that I keep returning to."

A moment of terror

"I think we're all very attracted to terror. We love to be made deeply afraid — that irrevocable something that comes out of the unknown and destroys you is something I've always been really interested in. None of us know, even in our relatively safe urban lives, what is going to happen.

"So I wanted to capture that in Trepass. The idea behind this book is that all the central characters are over the age of 60 and they're all trying, to some extent, to make sense of the bit that comes near the last third of one's life.

"I'm very interested in that. So much of what we do is allied to the future; so much of our happiness is dependent on, to a great extent, what we're looking forward to. When you're over the age of 60, as I am, you have this terrible realization that there's perhaps less to look forward to than there is to look back upon.

So much of our happiness is dependent on, to a great extent, what we're looking forward to.

"But you have to find meaning in every day. You have to find some way forward. I really wanted to look at that. It's a very important subject, given that now we're all living longer.

"How do we make sense of this bit of our lives? Our lives at this point can be very fruitful, or they can be full of despair."

Rose Tremain's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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