Sacred Country

Photo credit: Jyrki Salmi / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
I’m a creature of habit: something that’s always extended to reading. If I’ve liked something an author’s written, I want to read everything they’ve written and everything about them and sometimes, starting something new after what I like to call “a session” can freak me out a bit. This happened with Rose Tremain, who in my mind came under the heading ‘wary/suspicious’: I once heard my mum pronounce one of her novels ‘complete balls’ so I’d never read anything by her. But then, lo and behold, I discovered she’d written one set in a fictional village in Suffolk and there we were. Plus, I liked the cover.

Sacred Country begins with an aerial view: it’s 1952 and the nation falls silent to remember the dead king. We’re looking down at quiet street markets, white noise on the radio, a suspended lunch service at the Ritz. Zoom in to the fields of a Suffolk farm, where “a light snow began to fall like salt”. Mary Ward, aged six, is about to come to a realisation. “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.”

She tells her pet guineafowl, Marguerite, but then Marguerite is sent off to be plucked and eaten for dinner by her tyrannical father, so her secret’s safe – in a grim sort of way.As much as this is Mary’s story, and a moving, exciting, beautifully evoked one at that, it’s also Suffolk’s story. This is one of the first books I’ve read, as a Londoner, where rural life is presented as inferior to urban. Everyone in Swaithey hates it, everyone wants to leave, the land is near-barren, frost kills the lambs and there is absolutely nothing to do but drink and dream. The narrative jumps – pleasantly, for once – between the altering viewpoints of Mary, her mother, father, brother, family friends and grandparents. The characters who find happiness are, without exception, the ones who leave. “I had to transmigrate,” says Mary. “Not my soul, which would probably stay behind, hiding in the Suffolk lanes or in a ditch like my old tennis ball, but my body. I had to move it, or it would die here.” Contentment is never enough for Tremain’s cast: each wants more, with the vicious circle of wanting joy for so long that, when it’s found, is often missed. They are anchored in Suffolk and stifled by it. Mary tells her friend Walter, as they wait in the bare-faced dentist’s office, that everything has a time before it wasn’t there, “except Swaithey. That’s always been there. It’s in the Domesday Book.”

Do read it though, because it’s not as depressing as I’m making out. The first half in particular has the wonderful habit of tripping you up with humour where it’s least suspected – that darkly British quality of hinting at rather than spelling out, so that you’re never quite sure whether something is hilarious or tragic. Often, it’s both. With her parents desperate to feminise her, Mary is enrolled in the village dance class and on the night of the big performance, hiding backstage, “she took off her pink ballet shoes and pulled on her Wellingtons. She imagined each of them as a cardboard cylinder and her legs as the salmon-coloured plastic legs of Judy Weaver’s doll. She puffed up her net skirt around the boots. Now, she thought, I am a living toilet-roll cover.”

I want to mention the cover because it’s simple and clever. A young woman stands in an oval hoop of green, torso laid bare to reveal a growing tree with rolling fields behind it. This is Mary – not a body or a gender but so much the product of her surrounding geography, a living breathing thing, constantly renewing, constantly adapting and altering itself. Just as her friend Edward lies awake reading Gulliver’s Travels late into the night, staying still, Mary realises that she must become like Gulliver: larger than life, stranded on a faraway land, alien to those around her. She moves to the States after much painful surgery, but carries her home county – and all that accompanies it – inside her, always trying to re-imagine it to encompass the self she has formed.

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