VSlare clark’s seventh novel, his first book to be situated in the contemporary world, explores one of the defining scandals of recent times: from the 1980s to the present, plainclothes police have infiltrated activist groups in the UK. They developed sexual relationships with their targets as part of their cover, in some cases fathering children. This story was brought to public attention by the unmasking and subsequent revelations of former undercover agent Mark Kennedy. It was also featured in the Guardian by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, whose seminal work, Undercover, is credited as a source for Trespass.
Clark’s novel is a harrowing and compelling act of excavation. It almost feels like a moral necessity to read it and in doing so bear witness to something that was not only perpetrated by the police against political activists. This was done on behalf of the people whose taxes fund the state and whose votes decide its direction.
Trespass tells the story of Tess, a former environmental activist, and Mia, the daughter she had with another activist who became violent and unstable during Tess’s pregnancy, then disappeared shortly before Tess was born. Mia. When a death in the family brings to light the horrifying truth that this man, whom Tess knew as Dave, had in fact stolen the identity of a dead child and was not who he claimed to be. , an eerily inevitable denouement ensues. It becomes clear to Tess that the man she loved must have been an undercover agent. She sets out to go back in time and figure out who this man really was, at the same time as Mia, now 12, begins her own quest to understand her father’s story.
The novel does the best to dramatize the relationship between Tess and Mia. It’s a mother-daughter bond strained intensely by ghosts from the past and by the fact that, in an attempt to protect her daughter from the shame of abandonment, Tess told Mia that her father had died. These lies, piled on top of each other, put tremendous pressure on Mia’s excellently written character. Clark takes on the challenge of imagining what a story like this would do to a child; the emotional abuse visited on Mia simply by the facts of her birth.
There are many other things to rent in Trespass. The greatest outrage expressed by society when this news story broke was over the surveillance of people like Tess: middle-class white activists whose main concern was road construction. This book skillfully shows how the same unchecked surveillance had been visited on many other social groups. Clark embeds the low-level surveillance of a group of young Muslims into the story, and we get a glimpse of just how far the tentacles of the state have spread.
It also illustrates that anything done by the state is likely to be done to an even greater extent by the private sector, introducing industrial espionage into the narrative. After leaving the police, Dave finds a spy ring that is openly for hire, out of control, and driven solely by the profit principle. Finally, Clark asks us to consider how surveillance, which seems so dreadful when done in person, has become a part of all of our lives. Mia’s life, in particular, is dominated by her phone, and the buzz of her texting is part of her father’s violence against her.
At the heart of the narrative, however, is a significant failure. It may be intentional. Clark intertwines three voices to tell his story – those of Tess, Mia and Dave. She flagrantly fails to explain or humanize the last of them: as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more monstrous, until her behavior is almost unbearable to read. Perhaps it is Clark’s assertion that such men are simply monsters. However, the value of extending the work of Evans and Lewis to fiction is surely an opportunity to dig deeper into the lives and motivations of all those caught up in these atrocities. Trespass does not fully pursue this. Having met Mark Kennedy once while still undercover, and haunted by that encounter ever since, I couldn’t help but wish that was the case.