Sacred CountrySacred Country by Rose Tremain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Ward stands shivering in a Suffolk, England field in February, 1952 and realizes she is meant to be a boy. She is just six years old. Within its opening pages Sacred Country promises to take you on a literary journey that will be long and painful. Rest assured, it will also be beautiful and transformative.

Although Mary and her quest for her physical identity are at the heart of Sacred Country, it is a book full of souls searching for emotional purchase. Mary’s mother has a tenuous grip on sanity, losing her way at intervals and regaining her footing in a nearby mental hospital; Mary’s father is in danger of losing the family farm and slips further into madness borne of anger and alcohol; her brother loses his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer because he is too afraid to dive. A village friend, Walter, dreams of becoming a country-and-western singer, but must take over the family butcher shop when his father dies. It seems that there is nothing but heartbreak in gray and lifeless post-war Britain, that the future is alive in vibrant cities and on warm continents but in rural England the past rots in small and suspicious minds.

Yet Tremain offers enough light in the gloom that hope propels you on. Mary’s awkward courage as she stumbles through her transformation from Mary to Martin makes her so lovable. A small but formidable defense of friends and loved ones surrounds her: her grandfather, who accepts her unconditionally; her beloved teacher who embraces her intellect and shelters her when home life becomes unbearable; the cricket-bat maker who believes in reincarnation; his maid (who becomes his lover, then his wife) and her daughter, Pearl, who breaks Mary’s heart and helps it to heal.

Rose Tremain’s writing is flawless. Although this is a narrative focused on character development, the plot moves steadily forward. Although there are many characters and several sub-plots, there is a sense of the whole within each part. Vivid details of time and place hold you firmly in each era, the characters evolving with their age, changing with the times. The characters’ senses of humor and irony clear the air that could easily turn maudlin under the pen of a less-deft writer.

This is a book about transformation, about letting go of those who cannot change and embracing those who try. Sacred Country touched me profoundly with its humanity, its hope, its brutality and its intense love. It is rare that I close a book and cry at its end. This is a rare book, indeed.

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