Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country (1992)
London: Sceptre – Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.

I was thrilled with this book.

So thrilled that, although I had read almost half of it before I lost track of it in a chaotic part of the year, I re-read that half willingly on a second pass.

But that took time. More time than another novel of the same length would have taken.

There is something very ‘full’ about Rose Tremain’s writing.

It forces me to slow down as a reader. And, depending on my mood, I can resent that slowing.

(That happened with The Road Home, which I thought rather plodding and distance-y, right until I suddenly realized that something had shifted in my investment and I’d moved from disinterest to wanting to never stop reading about these somewhat-unlikeable characters.)

Sacred Country is bound to be a book that takes time, partly because it covers so much time, because it contains so much change.

It begins in 1952 and ends in 1980. It begins with Mary and it ends with Martin. 1952 slips into 1980, and Mary’s process of becoming Martin is a matter of being and becoming.

Mary/Martin’s intersexual identity is at the heart of this novel, but there are so many other characters whose voices matter in Sacred Country that it almost feels dishonest to focus on this.

Other characters, too, are existing in a place between.

Between madness and sanity, between loneliness and fulfillment, between desperation and determination.

Some characters are accepting of this state of flux, others are not: many exist between without reflection.

“Souls have no gender. You could have been a man, Mary. Or again, you may have been a marmoset.”

Some characters accept Mary’s growth/change completely, but understand it in a different way than she does.

For instance, her grandfather, Cord (their relationship is one of my favourite aspects of this novel), responds lovingly, but the way that he explains things does not suit Mary (she is still identifying to him as Mary, although has now asked to be called Martin at least):

“He said brass rubbings were ghostly things in two senses and everything important in life was dual, like being and not being, male and female, and that there was no country in between.”

Martin doesn’t hear what Cord is offering in terms of duality existing inside everything, which affords the chance for Martin to exist in Mary (which so many other people cannot even recognize); instead, Martin sees what Cord is saying as something exclusionary:

“I sat on the toilet and looked at Sir John [in the rubbing] and he looked at me with his empty eyes and I thought, Cord is wrong, there is a country in between, a country that no one sees, and I am in it.”

And not everybody is as supportive of the transformation/emergence as Cord is:

“A sense of such shame began to grow in her that she could feel herself aching to disappear, to be dead and forgotten.”

And Martin is not the only ones who feels this; there are others in the pages of Rose Tremain’s novel.

Some have experiences that are kinder; some have experiences that are more brutal.

(The layering that these instances offer to the story is behind the story’s ultimate power, in my opinion, but, ironically, I don’t want to say much about that, because it’s part of the wonder to see how it all — so slowly — takes shape.)

Mary eventually does seek intervention. This is a complicated process as well. And it extends across several years and chapters.

“’I’ve seen this,’ said Sterns, ‘in most of those I’ve helped – usually males who wish to become female, but one other like yourself. It has to do with being always a little outside the world. When you are apart from something it is easier to be wise about it.’
‘I don’t want to be ‘apart from the world’. That’s what I’ve felt all my life.”

There is a kind of chaos that exists alongside the various “solutions” that Martin either brushes up against or embraces.

The people on the fringes have reactions that complicate the process still further; Martin weaves in and out of certainty, as do those who love him.

It’s a bit messy. It’s a bit painful. And how can it not be?

“There is no whole truth, just as there is no heart of the onion; there are only the dreams of individual minds.”

At the end of Sacred Country, I was overwhelmed by both: the absence of the heart of the onion, and the overwhelming sense of so many individual minds’ dreams that had coalesced around a centre, around this narrative.

It was such a quiet, long, drawn-out, thrill.  And that is why Rose Tremain is one of my MRE authors. But I know that this style would not suit every reader, so is she one of yours?