miércoles, 7 de octubre de 2009

Sacred Country by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country is a novel set in Swaithey, a small place in Suffolk in the rural east of England. It’s a long way to a big city – in British terms that is, an hour perhaps or two to London at most! Local industries are small and livelihoods have traditionally arisen largely from the land. In some ways Swaithey might represent nothing less than the countryside idyll, the epitome of the perfect place to be at one with nature and oneself, the kind of place where day trippers from the smoke might imagine a life with fewer complications.

But as we get to know Swaithey’s inhabitants one by one, we discover a village of strangely isolated individuals. They seem to be constantly searching for an identity their isolation denies them and, though they are forever conscious of their place in space and time, they seem to seek only internalised goals. And, of course, these goals keep changing and it seems that few involved would recognise what they were seeking even if they found it.

Central to Sacred Country is the story of Mary Ward. We meet her first in 1952, telling off her younger brother Timmy. She is already old enough to be convinced she is a boy. The last we hear of him is in 1980. He is called Martin and is living in America.

Now almost everyone in Swaithey seems to be, in one way or another, hung up on sex. There’s plenty of births and general fecundity, but Mary, for instance, wants to deny her breasts. Her mother Estelle wakes up one morning having an orgasm, in which she rejoices. She can hardly remember the last one, and the feeling appears apparently without mechanical assistance. Meanwhile Timmy wants to become a vicar but can’t cope with Latin or Hebrew, shame him, and thus is the perfect partner for Pearl who just wants a child, nothing more. Walter needs dental treatment and, in seeking out the required probing, comes across Gilbert who fixes his mouth and then explores other avenues.

Mary, meanwhile, has left home and has gone to live with a family friend. She thus comes to know a local eccentric who caresses cricket bats and smells of linseed oil. But the point is he allows, even encourages Mary to find his identity as Martin. There is a confusion for Mary, but surely nothing greater than for most, who stumble into and over what life throws at them with copious second thoughts until old age finds them merely lonely.

Thus Swaithey’s folk interact, assist and hinder, both harm and care for one another. By the time we have lived with them for 28 years, perhaps we might expect at least some of them to have come closer to realising the realisable. But no, none of us has that privilege. A day is a day is a new day. Change is perhaps an illusion, a product of imagination, but certainly there is no going back. We may, as one character does, develop a passion for Country music so strong that we not only wear the clothes but also migrate to Nashville, but we would be no nearer to locating a core of identity within the self that everyone in this book seems to seek.

Mary-Martin, meanwhile, moves to London. The separation from his-her family seems permanent until a late suggestion of reconciliation. Shotguns have gone off in the meantime. Wars have been fought. He-she seeks out what she wants while doing bit jobs, and then a longer-term relationship with a poetry magazine offers stability. Cooperation is thin. She-he lies and is rejected. Other see through her reconstructions and withdraw cooperation. Eventually, he-she finds someone who asks fewer questions, but the internalised questions remain. They are no closer to answer than he or she.

As ever with Rose Tremain, the emotional landscape is rich, despite its East Anglian lack of feature. Interactions are many and varied, and families are depicted as organic, almost having their own unstoppable life generated from within their own existence. But in the end there is always a distance between people and themselves. It is as if they are strangers unto themselves, with each step along the path towards self-knowledge both painful and taken blind. Sacred Country is clearly worth reading several times.

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Sacred Country

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