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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful understated prose for a powerful story
I had 'The Road Home' by this author at Christmas and found it a very evocative story, written through the eyes of a foreigner in England. Seeing the country I thought I knew so well through foreign eyes was quite a wake-up call! I wanted to read more by this author, and was gratified to find that in this book, too, Rose Tremain tells a story from another unexpected...
Published on 25 Mar 2009 by Wrennie Foxeyes

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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful understated prose for a powerful story, 25 Mar 2009
This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
I had 'The Road Home' by this author at Christmas and found it a very evocative story, written through the eyes of a foreigner in England. Seeing the country I thought I knew so well through foreign eyes was quite a wake-up call! I wanted to read more by this author, and was gratified to find that in this book, too, Rose Tremain tells a story from another unexpected viewpoint (or set of viewpoints, since she divides the book into sections that allow more than one character to take their turn to tell their story in the first person). Mary Martin Ward, the book's main protagonist, is an acute observer of the places in which she lives (Suffolk, London, America) and of the people she meets. The author succeeds in presenting Mary's early life from a child's perspective - i.e. keen observation but often faulty interpretation. All is focused through Mary's essential belief that she should really be a boy, not a girl, and in this respect, she too walks through England as if she is a 'foreigner', because she doesn't fit comfortably into the female role and environment that she occupies, and thus often feels more of an onlooker than a participant.

Something similar could be said of Mary's mother, Estelle, whose lifelong struggle against depression isolates her too in a world that only transiently relates to what actually goes on around her. Mary's father Sonny handles his apartness in a different way - with belligerence and dogmatism, becoming over the years ever more inward-looking and taciturn. Her brother Timmy is another character who doesn't dovetail into school or life; he too seems to be on the outside looking in. In fact, all the characters in this book reflect the intrinsic solitariness that all humans experience at some point, but which perhaps we don't easily recognise in a crowded world. From Mary's Scottish primary school teacher who grew up in a windmill, via the butcher's son who was trapped in his inheritance, to the lovely but naive Pearl (Mary's "precious thing") we see this innate loneliness again and again, the faulty connections that people make with others even in the most intimate of relationships. And yet, it isn't a sad book (though it has some very sad moments). I found Mary's life journey not only very interesting but also quite inspiring; her spirit is indomitable.

There are also lots of side issues interwoven into the story that introduce the reader to all kinds of fascinating and diverse facts: farming, life in the 1950's, protest journalism, country music. And the writer's eye for detail is meticulous. I felt that the drama in the book had a more powerful impact on the reader because it was so understated. A gentle book that doesn't deal with gentle themes, but hopefully leaves its readers with more compassion towards the people they meet every day. There is more to everyone than meets the eye!

I heartily recommend this book to those who enjoy a thoughtful read.
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85 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great novel., 19 Aug 2005
This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
I loved this novel. I haven't read it recently so some of the details are fuzzy but I do remember being amazed by the story and the author's writing style.
"Sacred Country" is about a young girl, Mary Ward, who, at the age of six, realizes that she should be boy. The book is a chronicle of her life from that point on. I found the detailed descriptions of the odd things that captured Mary's curiosity as a child (and as an adult, in a different way) intriguing. I won't lie, this is a very sad story at times, and is hard to read in some parts because of Mary's loneliness. The loneliness is never stated and packs a harder punch because of it. All in all, this book explained to me in stunning writing, the process of finding all of the right worlds in oneself. And, dealing with them when they don't fit or express into a manageable form to the outside world. It is a coming of age story to the self and to life. I like to read to learn - about happiness, sadness, life - this book delivered in a big way for me.
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77 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A celebration of human weakness and triumph, 12 Sep 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
Six year-old Mary stood quietly in the snow, with her family, as they mourned the death of King George VI, and thought "I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I am a boy."
This is an enchanting story of people in a small village in the south of England trying to make sense of their lives.
It is not a book of tragedy. There is sadness, but there is joy. There is death but there is life. There is hopelessness but there is also the urge to become.
In its depiction of the complex network of relationships, there is probably more real truth about the way people are, than in a thousand psychology texts.
Walter with his dream of becoming a singer and songwriter believing that his dreams can never be fulfilled. Jimmy also nearly becoming trapped in a life not of his choosing. Both breaking out in their own special ways. Edward Harker, with his hat held discreetly in front of his trousers, believing that his feelings, at 61, for Irene are improper. And Irene never realising that a man could find her attractive as a woman.
Sonny, withdrawn inside himself occupied only with the farm that provided the family living. Estelle retreating into fantasy to escape a life of emptiness.
But, most of all, Mary who is really Martin, displaced in the family's cognisance by the arrival of the younger brother, despising him for his scrawny weakness, going through school to adulthood, meanwhile finding her true love and losing it, but growing triumphantly in her, then his, own individual way.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poor Mary, 19 May 2009
By 
Alexander Bryce (Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
I first came across Rose Tremain when my wife bought The Road Home which I picked up as I had nothing else to read at that time and could not put down. I thought that I would try another and bought Sacred Country which did not disappoint. Rose Tremain is no writer of "chic lit"; she is a serious writer of contemporary drama with a nice sense of humour to relieve the tension.
She has the gift of involving the reader in the lives of her characters to the extent that one really cares and fears for them. She also illustrates accurately and interestingly life in rural England in the fifties and swinging London in the sixties.
Poor Mary knows at a very early age that she is different and for most of her young life she ploughs a lone furrow with no help or love from her maladjusted parents. There must be many sad Marys and Martins who, not through their choice, are made differently. This book certainly got me thinking sympathetically about a group whom I had previously given little thought to.
A sad subject, but not a sad novel; a really entertaining story told with kindness and a lot of humour. For those of us of a certain age the date of events underlined by the pop music of the time is a neat, memory jogging device although I think her dating of the Beatles is a year or so out a small, and perhaps pedantic, criticism of a great read .
Will Mary ever find contentment? It is worth reading the three hundred plus pages to find out. You won't regret it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving in the extreme, 28 Nov 2008
By 
Phil (Bristol, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
The first quarter of this wonderful book took some getting into. Mary/Martin's gender-identity struggle really absorbed me, but the numerous other stories were distracting. In Part Two, however, the purpose of the extensive web of characters became clear, and from then on I loved every page of it.

It's a novel about the journeys of people's lives, and the factors - controllable or otherwise - that shape them. In particular, it focuses on the struggles of non-conformists, and people trapped where they don't want to be: in the wrong body; in mental illness; in a small village, with a mind-numbing job. It will especially touch readers who, as children, were 'different' and felt the pain and loneliness of hiding something (the 'am I the only one?' syndrome). It's frequently a sad book, at least until personal triumphs come for some, towards the end. But it's written so beautifully, and with such a thirst for life, that it's never depressing. And there are lovely touches of humour. It was hard to put down.

Rose Tremain made me feel so much about her characters, and drew me in so completely, that I shall buy her other books unseen. She has convinced me that she will always be imaginative, interesting and compassionate.

Update, July 2009: I've read her others now, and although I think 'Sacred Country' is the best, I also loved 'The Road Home' and 'The Way I Found Her' (although the latter was marred by an ending that didn't feel credible). Rose Tremain sure knows how to write, and I will always watch out for her.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pass over this book and it's your loss...., 11 Nov 2008
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This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
Buy this now! ;-)

I first read this book many years ago, soon after Rose had amazed me when she was on Desert Island Discs - she sounded so intelligent and interesting that I had to see what her books were like. I was stunned by it (and by the fact that's she's still comparatively little known) and lent my copy to several people, but in the end it didn't come back. So, in July I ordered a new copy and read it again - it was even better than I'd remembered - the plot, structure, exquisite use of the language and humour (as well as many other emotions) combine to make it one of my two favourite books. In case you're wondering the other is Last and First Men/Last Men in London by Olaf Stapledon - but that's out of print more often than not.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most fantastic book ever published., 18 Oct 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
In the summer of 1996, when I was feeling particularly confused and lonely I picked up a copy of sacred country and read it. Wow is the only word I can think of to summarise how I felt about the book. It gave me insight in to the struggles of others; the dilemas faced by Mary, Timmy, Estelle, Cord, Sonny Walter and the many other characters in the book opened my eyes to the world around me and made me alert to the emotions and insecurities of others. I have read the book 32 times since then and each time I find something else to break my heart or I notice something new in the story I never did before. The last time I read it I cried when Mary/Martin sat at the fountain in London wondering which parts of Mary she would miss when she finally became Martin. The way Rose Tremain creates a world into wich you can steo and find something new time and time again is fascinating. Whether it is Pearl's beauty, mary's struggle or Estelles madness that grips you the first time you read Sacred Country, you will find that it is something else entirely trhat grips you the second time. Fantasic, Tremain's most powerful work yet.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping, moving and different!!, 13 Jun 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
Rose Tremain has created another masterpiece with this work. The central character of Mary/Martin explores a range of emotions and circumstances that are beyond the scope of experience for most people, but the author creates a reality that all readers are able to relate to. The village life of rural England is vividly painted, with the stagnation and oppression felt by the key characters clearly tangible. Swinging London of the '60's allows Mary/Martin to come alive and live the life that he/she has been yearning for. In summary, this is an eloquently written narrative, with excellent characterisation. The events are in turn moving and comical, and I recommend this book as a gripping read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two minute's silence, 16 Sep 2009
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
Rose Tremain is a very likeable writer, but I sometimes feel that her characters are pieces she is moving around on a chessboard. It's very entertaining and enlivening writing with excellent plot lines and good character development. She doesn't really put a foot wrong. Nevertheless, there is sometimes a hint of a lack of deep feeling about her characters. Maybe when you've written as many books as she has the act of creation is so automatic that something mechanical creeps in?

In this novel the story covers the years 1950 to the late 70s and concerns Mary, a little girl who has a sudden revelation, while standing in a field with her family as they hold two minutes' silence for the death of George VI, that she is really a boy. The main story line follows her struggle to be accepted as a man, which she succeeds in doing towards the end of the book. But it also includes the story of her mother and father (very believable characters): Estelle, who is in and out of a mental institution for most of her life, and Sonny, who is a brutal man, rooted in the land, and who neither knows nor wants to know of anything but farming. In the end he fails at even that.

There are a many likeable characters, including a gay dentist, a man who lives in a converted bus in the middle of a field, and another (nephew of the above), Walter Loomis, who wants to be a Country & Western singer and eventually goes to Nashville to try and realise his dream. The characters are full of warmth and ambition - but there is that nagging feeling that something (perhaps not something very important) is missing.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lives of quiet desperation, 26 Jun 2009
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sacred Country (Paperback)
This is the third book by Rose Tremain that I have read, and she really is a very versatile writer, as regards both content and style. `Music and Silence' is a historical novel set mainly in 16th century Denmark; `The Journey Home' deals touchingly with a migrant worker from Eastern Europe; and in this novel we follow a number of characters over 28 years, the central figure being Mary who, at the age of six, decided that she is really a boy. And as far as style is concerned: here the sentences are mostly short, the ideas expressed are often whimsical and evince a free-wheeling, almost inconsequential association of ideas. The structure is unusual, too - short chapters, some authorial narrative, some written in the voice of either Mary or her mother. (A slight criticism I would make is that all the characters, whoever they are or whatever they say, make the same kind of curious association of ideas, so that it becomes the hallmark of the author rather than of her characters). There is a childlikeness in their thinking, which rings true for the children, but, I think, less so for the adults. At the beginning it appears a fragmentary book, but the parts will cohere more and more as we continue. Rose Tremain excels at depicting good people, and almost all the main characters merit that description - Mary's grandfather quite particularly so. But almost all of them have sad and unfulfilled lives. They are all so well drawn that one is filled with pity for them, even for Mary's violent father. And the power of the book, and the emotions it triggers in this reader, increase towards the end. The title of the book has puzzled me, but perhaps it refers to the country in which two of the characters finally find themselves fulfilled, though that blessing is not granted to the others.
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Sacred Country
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (Paperback - 4 April 2002)
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