Sacred Country: a novel ahead of its time

The activist Peter Tatchell on Rose Tremain’s Sacred Country, a groundbreaking novel about a young country girl called Mary who becomes a man named Martin

Sacred Country

The book was ahead of its time in terms of a compassionate, non-sensationalist reflection of the trials and tribulations often faced by people who realise they are not the gender they were told they were

One of the virtues of Sacred Country is that the trans story is not the single overwhelming facet. It is just there, matter-of-factly in the pages, inviting us to accept it as another aspect of the diversity of human existence. Rose Tremain narrates a trans journey, from female to male, and in the process humanises a still-often-misunderstood gender identity; reaching readers who may not be reachable by trans campaigners. There is no anti-trans murder and no trans suicide in this novel. Though such fates befall transgender people disproportionately in a still-ignorant, fearful and prejudiced world, and particularly did so back in the 1950s and ’60s when transphobia was far worse than it is today, tragedy was never the universal trans experience. Some people coped. They got through, undefeated. Sacred Country reveals the tale of one such ordinary, everyday trans person. Not a remote and privileged celebrity. Just an average Mary who becomes Martin.

Is this the definitive trans story? Of course not. No such single, all-embracing story can possibly exist because there are so many diverse transgender experiences. Although Sacred Country embodies only a few fragments of trans life, this does not diminish the insights, power, relevance and lessons of what it highlights in fictional form. Being trans is still a challenge. Leaving aside intolerant attitudes, the typical regime of hormones plus surgery is liberating, but not easy. It can take a physical and emotional toll, staggered over many years of treatment. Speaking of the pain after his first gender-reassignment surgery, a bilateral mastectomy, Martin recalls: ‘I remember how, in the past, I had imagined pain was my ally. I had imagined that if I suffered enough, I would become a man, of my body’s own accord.’

Martin has more than his fair share of suffering, including heartbreaking disappointment in love. ‘The woman I wanted was Pearl. I wanted to be Pearl’s universe. For her, I would have re-made myself as often and as completely as she demanded. She could have gone on inventing me until death parted us,’ Martin avowed, still bleeding from his breast-removal scars. But that is not the emotional end. ‘It isn’t finished and never can be, really,’ he later tells his grandfather.

One way you could read this book is as a metaphor for a rapidly changing post-imperial Britain: the decline of the old order, with its cosy certainties, and the rise of new, unexpected and previously ignored, derided and suppressed identities. A transition from a monocultural to multicultural country, with all the upheavals, setbacks, confusions, triumphs and disappointments that personal and social change so frequently involves.

Rose Tremain writes a story that, while it is not the same as mine, is one that I, as a gay man and dissenting critic of the status quo, can relate to. It is the narrative of an outsider in a society of defined expectations and narrow-minded conformism. Mary/Martin faces rejection by much of Swaithey, with its small-village mentality, but still manages to chart a course – with ups and downs – to live as the person he truly is: a man.

This is the account of a life that begins as ordinary, even pedestrian. Then, by dint of Mary’s self-awareness of a gender ‘mistake’, it reaches out to become something that transcends the everyday anticipations of her countryside backwater and beyond; confounding the doubters and antagonists.

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