Mary and Grace, by Melvyn Bragg

Review published on June 7, 2013. Reviewed by Sue Wilsea

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

Grace and Mary is a gentle and moving novel with chapters that alternate between the present and the past. In the present 71 year old John regularly journeys from London to Cumbria to visit Mary, his elderly mother who is being cared for in a nursing home. In an attempt to make sense of his mother’s increasingly fragmented memories, John reconstructs the past by imagining the life story of Grace, his grandmother and Mary’s mother.

The novel is full of tender and telling moments and is peopled with characters who are often misguided ( for example, Wilson, Grace’s grandfather, does not speak to her again after the birth of Mary) but never bad. Grace’s story is the most compelling. She is a finely drawn character: feisty, independent of spirit and yet forced to endure not only the social stigma of having an illegitimate child but the harsh reality of that child being brought up by another woman, kind though this woman proves to be. Grace’s own mother died when giving birth to her, she is abandoned by her soldier lover and then loses her own child. It is a sad story, made even sadder by the awareness that Grace’s fate was not uncommon, but one that is not without love and compassion.

The parts of the novel in the present are generally less effective, though there are many poignant descriptions such as when John notices that Mary’s hands are ‘a quilt of dark stains on silken, thin skin’. John is more of a cipher than a fully rounded character and we learn little about him other than he has been successful and has a family. He offers meditations on old age and memory loss and explores treatments for dementia; he continually asks himself ( and, by inference, us the readers) whether he is doing the right thing by his mother. Essentially his visits are tiring, repetitive and appear to achieve little. Without doubt these episodes are true to life but that doesn not mean they make for an impelling narrative. Because of this the novel’s overall structure can feel a bit wobbly at times.

It must be significant that John is a writer, about the same age as Bragg and that Bragg’s Mum, a working class Cumbrian lady, recently died in a Home. Ironically perhaps it is that closeness that makes John seem less ‘real’. But be in no doubt: this is a beautifully written and presented book ( the dust cover is an aesthetic delight) which deftly combines social and personal history and will appeal to a wide range of readers.

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