I am slightly wary of talking about seeing themes in an authors work for fear of people thinking I have got above my station and am being a bit pretentious. However having now read four, of Rose Tremain’s works for Trespassing with Tremain, Sacred Country being the penultimate, there are a few themes I am spotting. The stories of outsiders seem to be something that Tremain is most captivated by. In Sacred Country it is not one person who is the outsider, though initially you might think it, rather a whole cast of characters who all feel at odds with the world around them and those closest to them, who often feel it too. Tremain is something of a mistress of the unsaid and the voice of those who are different.
From an early age Mary Ward feels like she is slightly different from everyone else both in her family and in the small village of Swaithey, where the Suffolk countryside meets the coastline. It is not until the funeral for the King, in 1952 when Mary is six, that she knows how to put it into words. As soon as it dawns on her we know that Mary is going to have a difficult life ahead of her fighting against the conforms of normality in many people’s eyes.
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.
There is much that is marvellous about what Tremain does with Sacred Country and indeed with Mary. At the start of the novel I have to admit that I was rather worried. Child narrators are a complex beast in fiction, often used to highlight some moral or social story with naivety which can often come across as either being calculating or utterly off putting because invariably the author decides to make them precocious or overly chipper in the face of diversity. Not so in Tremain’s case, thank goodness. In her youth Mary has a pretty hard life and she just manages to bear it in the main, she isn’t overly chipper, she isn’t precocious, she just survives because it is human instinct. This isn’t to say that Tremain doesn’t use both the naivety and the black and white nature of a child’s mind to her advantage, as in the early parts of the novel she will often use a child’s eyes to highlight some of the things going on that they aren’t noticing but we are as adult readers.
I didn’t want to think about where Estelle was going. On the other side of Leiston there was a place called Mountview Asylum which we had sometimes passed on the way to the sea in Sonny’s van. I whispered once to Timmy that this was a loony bin where boys got sent if they couldn’t learn multiplication. Instead of cringing with fear as I’d hoped, he looked at the place, which was a converted stately home with red walls and flying turrets, and said: ‘Which bit of it is the actual bin?’ And we all laughed. Even Estelle. This is the only time that I can remember us all laughing together – like a proper family in an Austin with a picnic hamper – when Timmy asked the question about the Actual Bin.
As we read on we like Mary, not because she is different and going through a hard time (though that is what makes us root for her) but because she is a fully formed thoughtful young girl, who just happens to have been born in the wrong body and indeed in the wrong place and at the wrong time. I kept thinking of all the people who must lived through this in the past let alone now, as I read along with Mary’s struggle with trying to come to terms with and find out who she really is and where that journey takes her.
This alone in Tremain’s hands would have been a wonderful novel yet she does several things that take it up a notch or ten and make it truly exceptional. Firstly there is the fact that as we read Mary’s tale and meet all the people around her, even those who she merely passes in the streets of Swaithey, we soon discover that many of them too are outsiders in their varying ways. We have mothers who have had children out of wedlock and been left with merely people’s kindness and judgement to deal with, we have people hiding their sexuality, we have unrequited love, we have people with mental illnesses, alcoholics, spinsters who people gossip about and insinuate allsorts. I could go on. With all this going on Tremain both shows the utter hypocrisy of society and people within it. She also looks at the fact that often we all feel lost and alone and don’t talk about it, when if we did we might find out that actually other people feel lost too only for different reasons.
Rose Tremain gives us real insight into what is left unsaid through the style in which the book is written. We will often go from person to person in the village through an omnipresent narrator and then suddenly we will find ourselves in one of the characters heads as they narrate a section of each chapter, which are actually years from the 1950’s onwards, giving us additional insight from different characters vantage points. This is invariably through the Wards be it Mary, her brother Timmy or her mother, Estelle, and father Sonny ; all who give their own slant on their lives and their place in the ‘family’, though some proving quite uncomfortable to be in the mind of. I found Estelle to be particularly fascinating and could have read a lot more of what is unsaid between her and all those around her through her narrative.
Another thing that Tremain does which I have mentioned my love of before on this blog several times, is use the world around the characters to set the scene. The ramshackle and rundown farm in which the Wards live seems to reflect the family within it, as it gets more decrepit so do the relationships within it. The same with Gilbert and his mother, living in a house on the edge of a crumbling cliff face, as time goes by things become eroded, security is lost and the threat of danger comes ever closer. Even the weather and the atmosphere of the countryside often reflects a sign of things to come.
That night the storm came. In ten hours it rained seven inches. The apple trees were stripped of their blossom by the wind. The telephone lines and the power lines fell onto the lanes and fields. The shoulders of the ocean hurled themselves at the undefended shore and the cliffs at Minsmere began once again to slip and fall away.
As Mary grows up and the book follows her life it also literally grows both in scope and in the themes it brings up. As Mary starts turning more and more into Martin we follow life for those people still in her home village but also follow her as her world grows from her own village, to neighbouring towns (when she visits the wonderful, wonderful Cord) to the cities and then even further afield. As the decades pass there is also a growth in technology and advancement in science, surgery and also society as the world changes. Here again Tremain plays a masterstroke as time moves on. Often the things going on in the background (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, Vietnam, the swinging sixties and even the world cup of ’66) reflecting the atmospheres or moments within certain characters lives. You often feel like every paragraph has an extra layer or two beneath the initial words and story it is telling you and this is what I am coming to admire more and more in Tremain’s writing.
Sacred Country is a novel that is as compelling as it is complex. It is a marvellous novel about a young person born in the wrong body and how hard it must be, it is also about much more than that. There is as cast a cast of characters and their secrets as there is themes about society and the world in which we live in and how it has changed over time. It is a book about those who are different and those who become outsiders be it from their situation or in some cases their own choices. It is about communication and what is left unsaid. It is also a book about acceptance. All this told without sentimentality, yet filled with heart and understanding.
It is official. Rose Tremain is swiftly becoming one of my very, very favourite writers and Sacred Country is a book that I will be thinking about for a long, long time. (I am quite desperate to discuss Irene and Pearl, Gilbert and Walter, and many more characters in more detail but didn’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!) I am thrilled to have so many more of her novels and short stories to go, including of course the final Trespassing with Tremain title Restoration which I will be talking about in three weeks time. In the meantime who else has read Sacred Country and what did you think?