Rose Tremain is one of my favourite authors, although I haven’t read one of hers in a while. I tend to save them up for times when I just want a good book.
This was a good book, I enjoyed it so perhaps it says more about my reading mood that I didn’t enjoy it quite so much as I thought I would. Or maybe Tremain has just come to the end of her ability to shake my reading world. As time goes by, my reading preferences and desires and enjoyments change through experience.
Sacred Country is about a Sussex town called Swaithey, which seems to be a rather far and remote place full of people trapped by its smallness.
Mary at the age of six comes to a sudden realisation that she is not a girl as is her biological gender, but in fact a boy. This sets her apart from everyone and alienates her from her family. Then there is Walter, the son of the village butcher who longs to be singing country music in Tennessee rather than chopping meat in West Sussex. Each character seems to be searching for their place – whether it be in Swaithey or outside – their place of safety and happiness.
I kind of wish it was a more in depth analysis of what it was like to be transgender, but then I can’t really expect that of Tremain whose style of writing is wispy as ever. It is the kind of writing that floats on ideas, feelings, senses and themes rather than anything overly concrete.
In a way, Mary’s journey to becoming male seems a little incidental to me. Tremain wanted her to be different, alienated and what better form of alienation than from your own body? I’m not sure I truly believed that Mary was a boy – inside. Or maybe that is part of my own difficulty to see her as him when in the book she is always referred to as she, or as Mary. How important is a pronoun in giving someone their identity? Or perhaps it was her attachment to the baby Pearl that made me wonder. Not that boys don’t become attached to babies, I suppose, so maybe I am again gender stereotyping.
Tremain never truly writes worlds which seem real, however, always as if from a plain just beyond reality. I’ve always liked this slightly side-stepped style. It is nothing grand, but offers a much more organic perspective.
The narration skims between person to person – sometimes first person, sometimes third. Mary sometimes in first, sometimes in third perhaps to illustrate her separation of gender and body. Yet it feels natural.
Nothing really to grab onto and pull you into the story, however. An enjoyable read for the time spent on it, but nothing that took me away from my seat and offered me an alternate view.