BOOK REVIEW / Roots on the map: 'Sacred Country' - Rose Tremain: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.95

The mass of men, Thoreau said in 1854, lead lives of quiet desperation; and in Rose Tremain's novels that mundane despair is laid bare. What she loves to probe is the inevitable space, whether a tiny crack or a gaping abyss, between desire and its realisation.

When Larry Kendal began to build his pool in The Swimming Pool Season, it was written in the heavens that it would be filled in by bulldozers before the last page. When Robert Merivel suddenly discovered that he loved his wife in Restoration, it was clearly her destiny to be snatched from him. So when, on page five of Sacred Country, Mary Ward stands in a Suffolk field at the age of six and realises that she is not, at heart, a girl, you know you are in for a long haul. Choosing a transsexual for her heroine is almost too perfect for Tremain's talents; throughout Sacred Country she can endlessly detail that sad slippage between desire and reality, imagined wholeness and real fragmentation.

Mary Ward's only moment of unadulterated joy comes when she is called 'lad' by a boating attendant at the Serpentine, and is 'stabbed with pleasure'. 'There is something in the unexpected that moves us,' she muses later, 'as if the whole of existence is paid for in some way, except for that one moment, which is free.' The rest of Mary's slow transformation into something approaching a man is a tale of excessive payments and deferred satisfaction.

There is the ritual humiliation that her father metes out to her; the crushing sense of loneliness; the first sexual relationship, before any physical changes have taken place - but 'She tried to explain to Georgia that she could only love women who loved men, not women who loved women'; the pain of surgery; and the terrible moment when, high on testosterone and still bleeding from her breast removal scars, she sets upon her most 'precious thing', her dear little Pearl, with a frightening declaration of love, and never sees her again. 'It isn't finished and never can be, really,' she says to her grandfather soon after that. Just like Tremain's previous heroes it is not fulfilment that Mary finds at the end but mere equilibrium, a dusty answer to all her demands for happiness.

It is not only on Mary Ward that Tremain practises her talents for portraying dusty answers. Taking as her chosen era that grey period of English history, 1950 to 1980, and her chosen starting place a grey Suffolk town called Swaithey, she fills her pages with provincials, eccentrics, losers and schizophrenics, often with slight physical disabilities or personal hygiene problems, for whom self-realisation is a difficult process. Some give up altogether, like Mary's father, who had an ear blown away in the war, spends his life trying to keep up a useless farm and finally shoots himself; or Mary's mother, who at first seems just a little at sea with reality but ends up preferring the warm vacuousness of the local mental hospital to the dense misery of her own home.

Many of her characters display the obsessive, self-destructive behaviour of animals kept too long in cages. There is Margaret Blakey, who spends her time measuring the distance between her house and the cliff, or the woman in the mental hospital who believes she is a chicken, or Mary's mother, again, who repaints bedrooms for imaginary children. Their bodies, even when they are happy with their gender, play horrible tricks on them: 'Peter Loomis had said, 'It's just my nose, doing what it's doing.' What it was doing was growing a cancer.' Their own country feels alien to them: 'It's mud. It's shit,' Mary's brother says of the land he is to inherit.

This claustrophobic misery shows up the dark side of rural Britain, that must be elbowed away, even destroyed, if its people are to achieve anything. Those that can, leave for London - like Gilbert the gay dentist, who suddenly runs off to Flood Street; Mary herself, and Walter Loomis, a butcher with appalling gum disease, who gradually realises: 'Swaithey had started to kill him. He knew that if he stayed there, working in the shop, living with his mother, he would one day pick up a filleting knife and plunge it in his heart.' No wonder English writers have turned away from recreating England's rural backbone, concentrating instead on chic bourgeois entanglements or the solipsistic journeys of egoists if this mottled, inarticulate torment is all that awaits them at home.

Two things keep the sad parade of Sacred Country on the road. First, the odd quickness and sparkle of Tremain's writing. She trips past the misery with a soft burr of laughter at the back of her throat, setting down her characters' bizarre sayings and doings as though she had gone through life with a notebook in hand, noting down the surreal nonsenses people mutter in buses; 'Weddings make me constipated,' for instance, or 'Learning to yodel was far more difficult than Walter had imagined.' Tremain is superb at delicately gesturing at, rather than exposing, inner torment, by showing how our choices are made for us as much by a sense of physical rightness or wrongness as by emotional decisions.

This is the mark of the natural novelist, an unaffected ability to show rather then tell, to make the details pull together. So one can map Mary's tortured childhood by her discomfort in the smocked dress that she scratches at until blood beads her chest; her lonely adolescence by the dirty crepe bandages with which she binds her breasts; her commencement of the march to freedom with her first pair of jeans and the 'hard feel of denim in her crotch'; her final equilibrium and decision not to go on with surgery in the 'silk scarf, folded into a pad, inside my blue Y-fronts . . . The feel of silk in the groin is civilised.'

These precise, lucid observations and sparks of funniness lead to the second great strength of Sacred Country: its unusually sweet and hopeful sense of ethics. Although Tremain has less than no nostalgia for traditional British society, she gradually sets up a strong sense of community. This community of eccentrics, sometimes verging on the quaint, is united in their tolerance of others' sacred countries; 'Everyone needs a map,' as Pearl observes to Mary, and no one should interfere with anyone else's. So in her long march Mary is disowned by most of Swaithey, but also supported, by an old teacher who was born in a lighthouse; by her grandfather, who takes his wisdom from Bob Dylan songs; by a carpenter who believes in reincarnation; and, of course, by Walter Loomis, butcher turned country and western singer, with whom she finally stays in Nashville, Tennessee.

There in America both Mary and Walter feel entirely accepted for the first time, at home in a group of quaintly innocent oddballs all devoted to this gentle prescription of live and let live. And while that sometimes gooey ethical aura will not be to everyone's taste, still, it lends moral urgency to what would otherwise be merely an amusing diversion.

(Photograph omitted)