Review published on November 9, 2017.
This is a book which stayed with me well after I finished it.
But first things first – what a beautiful cover (detail from a painting) and an intriguing title. Also the author’s name – Cumbria and Bragg are synonymous; one of my favourite historical novels is Melvyn (father to this author) Bragg’s The Maid of Buttermere. Back to this Bragg, she describes herself as half-French and half-Cumbrian. And this book benefits from the latter as well as her day job as a priest – there are spiritual elements too.
So a historical novel may be in the genes but this is set in more recent times, in the 23 years following Spring 1971.
The cover, as already stated, is beautiful and a fell-scene, the dedication is to her Cumbrian fell-living family. All setting the scene. The following page has a quote from I Kings about a man and a juniper tree, next is the contents, which indicates the narrative is told from four peoples’ perspectives, each tied to a season, usually Spring, and a year. Next page is a exquisite hand-drawn family tree of the main protagonist Harald Maria. I must confess I looked at the detail and thought that I’d never remember all these people but no worries as they don’t all feature – like everything to date it is centring the narrative. One further detail to aid your understanding is a sketched map of the area the book is set in. A solid start in the best sense.
I struggled to get into the story initially. We begin in Spring 1971 and with Harald. He is the son of a farmer, George (from a line of Georges) and coming into his own. Living with them is Grandma Catherine; Mother and Grandfather having being killed in a car crash. I felt almost smothered by the detail and descriptions of both landscape and a fell farm of that time but not for long. I soon grew to love her style of writing.
Old enough to remember some of that time I guessed how the story would turn out but not in specifics. And it’s not meant to be a mystery!
Woven into the story of Ard Farm (dropped ‘h’?!) and it’s family is Joe, the long-time, salt of the earth, farmhand who offers a different view. Another aspect of the book was Catherine’s missionary brother John, who we come to know through his collected letters back to family. This added a different period and voice whilst supporting the main themes.
This novel shows us both the changes in the life and economy of the farm but also culturally and spiritually. It is a testament to a simple life, simply lived.
In sympathy with the supporting documentation at the beginning of this book, after the story the book concludes with three paragraphs from different sources of factual reports on pesticides and then in the same italic-style it ends with a miniature glossary of all the meanings of the word ‘Mellbreak’ and it’s components. A very thoughtful book with plenty to mull over.
Cath Sell 5/5
Towards Mellbreak by Marie-Elsa Bragg
Chatto & Windus 9781784741334 hbk Apr 2017
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