I’d given up reading Rose Tremain after struggling through Music and Silence, convinced that her writing just wasn’t to my taste. Cue rolling eyes and sighs of frustration therefore when my book club chose to read Sacred Country. To my astonishment, I found it astoundingly good; a poignant, thoughtful and beautifully observed novel that has completely reversed my attitude to Tremain.
In essence Sacred Country is a novel about people who are all searching for a path that will bring them peace and a sense of their true nature. At its core is farmer’s daughter Mary Ward, who even as a child feels she is out of sync with family members and everyone in the village. On the day of the King’s funeral in 1952, the six year old has a sudden flash of consciousness:
“She stared at her family, took then in, one, two, three of them, quiet at last but not as still as they were meant to be, not still like the plumed men guarding the King’s coffin, not still like bulrushes in a lake. And then, hearing the familiar screech of her guineafowl coming near the farmhouse, she thought, I have some news for you Marguerite, I have a secret to tell you, dear, and this is it: I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.“
And so begins the slow transformation from Mary into Martin in a world that is not ready to show understanding let alone acceptance of a desire for a different life. Her father beats Mary when he discovers she has been binding her breasts to make them disappear. The local vicar — the first person in whom she confides, — tells her she will go to Hell. There’s little help either from her doctor who says her feelings are the result of late onset of menstruation and he’ll giver her tablets to sort her out. It’s not until she moves to London that she finds sympathy and understanding.
Tremain sensitively portrays the turmoil of living in a body that feels alien. Over the course of some 30 years, Mary experiences loneliness and rejection; undergoes psychotherapy and hormone treatment before facing the ultimate step of sex-change surgery. It’s a life of emotional and physical ordeals but though she has moments of despair, she survives through sheer will and determination:
I am not in search of friends and confidences. I’m concentrating on being. I live each hour, one by one. My mind is quiet and still. I am no longer waiting for time to pass.
Community of Outsiders
Sacred Country is not only Mary’s story. Tremain shows she is surrounded by people who share her belief that they are living the wrong life. They are one thing, but yearn to be something else.
One boy is a farmer, but really wants to be a priest. The village dentist longs for a joyful life where he doesn’t have to hide his sexuality and the butcher’s son harbours ambitions of becoming a Nashville country music star. They, and many others in one Suffolk coastline village will get what they secretly need by the time the book ends. Even Mary’s brutish, drunk of father gets what he has always wanted — a son, though not in the way he imagined.
The novel begins slowly but gathers momentum as the narrative enters the homes and the innermost thoughts of a dozen or so characters. Some characters, like Mary’s mother Estelle whose hold on life is fragile, I would have enjoyed spending even more time with because there was so much of her story that felt unsaid.
II wasn’t expecting this book to be this compelling. Tremain handles difficult human conditions sympathetically but without being sentimental. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and beautifully written story that challenges societal norms, “Sacred Country” is well worth your time.