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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Difficulty Of Recognising Happiness

Sacred Country - Rose Tremain

Sacred Country has at its core, the story of Mary Ward who in 1952, at six years old, while standing in the middle of a field in Suffolk in a silence intended to mark the death of the king, realises that she is a boy trapped in a girl's body. The novel follows her struggle with the implications of this realisation, culminating thirty years later in hormone treatment and a double mastectomy.

The story is also filled with the voices of the people around Mary - her brother, father, mother, grandfather and primary school teacher, her mother's friend and the man whose house that friend cleans, the friend's daughter, the local butcher and his brother, the slaughterman. These characters make up a community of eccentrics and misfits whose absurdity the author nevertheless somehow invests with a kind of nobility.

Using a variety of narrative modes and adopting a range of different voices, Rose Tremaine manages to take us right inside the skins of these characters - in Mary's case a skin that she is trying to remake so it conforms to her sense of herself. In the process we see the contrast between the grainy reality of the characters' lives and the dreams to which they all aspire.

Poignant, moving and often painfully funny, Sacred Country is a novel about the way individuals are trapped by the weight of the past and by the expectations of others. It's about the overwhelming need to forge an identity for oneself in the face of these expectations and the difficulty of finding, or even recognising happiness, when it arrives. It is without doubt one of the finest novels I have ever read.