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Trespass by Clare Clark review – on the trail of an undercover police officer | Fiction

Clare Clark’s seventh novel, her first book to be set in the contemporary world, explores one of the defining scandals of recent times: from the 1980s to the present day, undercover police officers 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 disclosures of the former undercover officer Mark Kennedy. It was also exposed in the Guardian by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, whose landmark work, Undercover, is credited as the source material for Trespass.

Clark’s novel is a harrowing and compelling act of excavation. It feels almost like a moral necessity to read it, and through doing so bear witness to something that wasn’t just perpetrated by the police against political activists. It was done in the name of the people whose taxes fund the state and whose votes decide its direction.

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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 and then disappeared shortly before Mia was born. When a death in the family brings to light the appalling 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, a grimly inevitable unravelling ensues. It becomes clear to Tess that the man she loved must have been an undercover officer. She sets out to reach back into her past and understand who this man really was, at the same time as Mia, now aged 12, begins her own search to understand the story of her father.

The novel is most successful in dramatising the relationship between Tess and Mia. Theirs is a mother-daughter bond put under intense pressure by the ghosts of the past, and by the fact that, as an attempt to protect her daughter from the shame of abandonment, Tess has told Mia her father died. These lies, piled on top of each other, exert an extraordinary pressure on the excellently written character of Mia. Clark rises to the challenge of imagining what a story like this would do to a child; the emotional violence visited on Mia simply by the facts of her birth.

There is much else to praise in Trespass. The greatest outrage expressed by society when this news story broke was over the surveillance of people like Tess: white middle-class activists whose main concern was road-building. This book deftly shows how the same unchecked surveillance had been visited on many other social groups. Clark threads the low-level monitoring of a Muslim youth group into the story, and we glimpse how very far the tentacles of the state spread.

She also illustrates that whatever is done by the state is likely to be done to an even greater extent in the private sector, bringing corporate espionage into the narrative. After leaving the police, Dave finds an espionage network that is openly for hire, unchecked and motivated only by the profit principle. Finally, Clark asks us to consider the way surveillance, which seems so appalling when done in person, has become a part of all our lives. Mia’s life, in particular, is dominated by her phone, and the buzz of her texts becomes part of her father’s violence against her.

At the heart of the narrative, though, is one significant failure. It may well be intentional. Clark interleaves three voices to tell her story – those of Tess, Mia and Dave. She signally fails to explain or humanise the last of these: as the novel proceeds he becomes steadily more monstrous, until his behaviour is almost unbearable to read about. It may be Clark’s contention that such men are simply monsters. However, the value of extending Evans and Lewis’s work into fiction is surely the opportunity to go deeper into the lives and motivations of all the people caught up in these atrocities. Trespass does not fully pursue this. Having met Mark Kennedy once while he was still undercover, and been haunted by that meeting ever since, I could not help but wish it had.

Trespass by Clare Clark is published by Virago (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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