BOOK REVIEW / Sex of one and half a dozen of the other: Sacred Country - Rose Tremain: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
ROSE TREMAIN's previous novel, Restoration, offered a glittering surface undercut by currents of existential unease and desolation. Lulled by the brilliantly achieved period detail, which seemed to promise that the reassuring conventions of genre fiction would be observed, the reader was dismayed to discover that Tremain's 17th-century England was not a museum or a theme park but a laboratory. Sacred Country also trades in the past, but this time it is clear from the start that the period setting, the drab austerities of post-war Britain, has an emblematic rather than historical weight.

The opening scene is at once chronologically precise - it is two in the afternoon of 15 February 1952, when a two-minute silence for the death of George VI is being observed - and a dumb-show which sets out the novel's relentlessly bleak themes: 'Many people wept and they wept not merely for the King but for themselves and . . . the long ghastly passing of time.' For the Ward family the silence is longer and ghastlier than most, since Sonny Ward, the drunken, violent father, insists on their observing the silence in the middle of one of the fields on their Suffolk farm, despite the fact that it is snowing and that - since the minute hand has fallen off his watch - he has no idea when it should begin or end.

At some point during this meaningless ordeal his six-year-old daughter Mary decides that she is not a girl but a boy. The rest of the book, a montage of brief epiphanic episodes capitalising on Tremain's strength as a short-story writer, interleaves an account of Mary's painful progress towards the realisation of her transsexual self, Martin, with glimpses of the parallel odysseys of her relatives and neighbours.

There is so much madness, despair, suicide and despondency all round that a synopsis of the plot would risk sounding like The Archers scripted by William Faulkner, but in the first half of the book the sheer power of the writing carries all before it. When the action moves away from Suffolk to the larger ambits of London and Tennessee, however, this compelling intensity is dissipated, and the muted major-key ending in an idyllic America seems a rather contrived reward for the anguish which the cast, and reader, have endured.

Where the explicit artifice of Restoration suited Tremain's cool, studied manner perfectly, the effect in Sacred Country is of a queasy yawing between naturalistic realism and a larger meaning for which it is a metaphor. Thus Mary/Martin's drama seems intended as a reflection on national lost certainties, yet the result impoverishes the book's central character without saying anything particularly interesting about the identity crisis of post-war Britain. Mary is reduced to a mere personification of the transsexual dilemma, and Rose Tremain, in her anxiety not to patronise her characters, ends up condescending to them.

The blend of earnest portentousness with a rather mannered deadpan whimsicality eventually takes its toll, as does the airless flat perspective deliberately deprived of any real social or psychological depth. The period details are accurate enough - although if Mary really wrote 'I am in the wrong gender' in 1967, then she must have been one of the first people to use the word in this sense - but they remain nominal. In the end it is hard to see why Estelle, Mary's mother, spends half the book in psychiatric care, since her version of reality is no more obsessively solipsistic than everyone else's.

Sacred Country is a well-intentioned, high-minded and awesomely accomplished piece of craftsmanship beside which many of the season's offerings look sloppy or opportunistic, but in the last analysis, like its hero(ine), it is easier to admire than to like.

(Photograph omitted)