English author Tremain (Restoration, 1990, etc.) returns triumphantly to the 20th century, sketching the outwardly stunted postwar lives of a dozen small-town characters in rural Suffolk- -people whose inner lives, however, are surprising, colorful, sometimes tragic, and drive many of them to a bittersweet, affecting end.
At age six in 1952, Mary Ward--observing a minute of silence for the dead King George IV while standing in a potato field belonging to her brutish father, Sonny, and her dreamy mother, Estelle--suddenly becomes aware that she wishes she were a boy; over the next 30 years, fighting with her hapless brother Timmy, strapping her growing breasts against her chest, falling in love with a neighbor girl named Pearl, running away to her grandfather Cord's house in the wonderful town of Gresham Tears, changing her name to Martin, moving to London, submitting to psychoanalysis, and finally having a sex-change operation and emigrating to Nashville, heroic Mary makes this pressing wish come true. Estelle, lost in a vague dream of her own that eventually leads her to a mental hospital, and Sonny, who becomes a sloppy, suicidal drunk, don't fare as well. But Timmy--who wants to be a pastor rather than a farmer--does; he marries Mary's girlhood love-object Pearl. Eventually, the local homosexual dentist Gilbert, who longs for a swinging life; Walter, Gilbert's first lover, a butcher's son who wants to become a Nashville country music star; and Walker's mother Grace, who buys Sonny Ward's farm after Sonny has killed himself and who grows rich raising chickens--all these and others will get what they secretly need. So, finally, ironically, does even the dead tyrant Sonny--who gets a son to work the land, even though the son is Mary and the land she's working is in Tennessee.
Tremain's latest starts slowly but gathers emotional speed and literary power: an entrancing, highly satisfying read.