Book review: Grace And Mary by Melvyn Bragg

OVER the years, Melvyn Bragg’s writing has attracted a degree of (jealous?) teasing, but the dissenting voices compete with a louder chorus of praise in which he is favourably compared with DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy.

Grace And Mary

Melvyn Bragg

Sceptre, £18.99

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    His latest novel is based on the stories of his grandmother, Isabelle (renamed Grace in the novel) and of his mother, Mary, to whom Isabelle, then unmarried, gave birth in 1917, and who was raised by a foster mother. Mary was suffering from dementia when she died last year, aged 95.

    His novel weaves together stories of the women’s early lives with an account of Mary’s final years in a care home in Cumbria. Her 71-year-old son John visits from London, where his days are filled with “committees, commitments, entertainment, engagements” and work on a book about the first vernacular translation of the Bible (a subject on which Bragg has also written).

    The novel addresses the ­habits and prejudices of a simpler age. Grace’s childhood is sunny: her grandparents love her; her schoolteacher recognises her talents. But, as in the novels of Hardy, her restless desire to better herself is her undoing: she throws over her dull farmer boyfriend for a shifty, poetry-quoting soldier who impregnates and abandons her to the wrath of her grandfather and the sneers of the village.

    John, meanwhile, is groping in the opposite direction: from the complexities of his London life towards the kinder certainties of his mother’s stalwart cheerfulness. The emotional freight of loss and longing should have been a rich seam but, until the novel’s closing pages, where Bragg’s tense grip on his narrative loosens, his voice stands in his story’s light – describing, interpreting, interrupting with sententious obiter dicta at inop­portune moments.

    This is a very personal book; it is clear how much it matters to its author and, as a reader, you long for it to be good. It is deeply felt, and if that is the mark of good fiction, then Grace And Mary is an admirable novel. «