Book review: Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

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IT’S the prospect before so many of us now: a twilight existence, memory wandering and failing, dementia gripping harder, and eventually extinction.

Grace and Mary

by Melvyn Bragg

Sceptre, 249pp, £18.99

A grim subject for a novel, you may think, but Melvyn Bragg treats it so tenderly, sympathetically and imaginatively that Grace and Mary is rich in the consolation that art can offer.

John is 71, a successful man, who now in retirement is writing a biography of the 14th-century religious reformer, John Wyclif, though he is no longer a believer himself. He lives in London. Regularly, though less frequently than he would wish, he drives the length of England, to Cumbria, to visit his 92-year-old mother, Mary, in the home where she now lives and will die. She is often confused, as dementia tightens its grip. In other respects she is lucky – this is not a medical horror story. The home is a good one, a one-storey Palladian-style villa set in beautiful countryside within view of the sea. The nurses are caring and efficient.

John loves his mother dearly – he was an only child, and they have always been close. He ponders the mysteries of the failing mind, and hopes that he can stimulate it by summoning up old memories, speaking to her of the past, repopulating the town of Wigton as it was when he was young, and she was an active woman who loved singing and dancing. Some days it seems to work. She is happy and her mind is clear. A book of old photographs of the town delights her. But then she drifts away, doesn’t remember who he is, asks when she will be back in her own home, and when her husband, who has been dead for 15 years, will come to visit her. Sometimes she calls out for her mother, Grace, and wants to be with her.

Grace was indeed her mother, but as we learn, she didn’t bring her up, and they never lived together. They never had a true mother-daughter relationship. Grace’s story is the other half of the book, episodes skilfully interleaved with the here and now in which John visits Mary and tries to understand the nature of her dementia, wondering how it may be alleviated, and whether a cure may be found. Grace’s story is as imaginatively re-created by John. Though it is presented as an accurate or factual reconstruction, much of it is speculative, yet one accepts it just as one accepts John’s accounts of his visits to Mary. It is detailed and persuasive. The reader is not likely to question it, or to be disturbed that the nature of the novel’s two narratives is very different. This is a tribute to Melvyn Bragg’s art.

Grace herself was a motherless child, her mother dying in giving birth to her. So she was brought up by her grandparents on their small farm, and treasured by them because she was pretty, lively and intelligent. But of course she felt the lack of a mother, and her father, whom she loved, married again to a woman who didn’t want Grace around. Her story was a common one, for that time and society. She might belong in a Hardy novel, and indeed there are many echoes of Hardy in John’s reconstruction of the world of Grace’s youth – a world which, like her own life, would be torn apart by the Great War. It was in many ways, as Bragg shows, a beautiful world, but one where people still believed in sin – and its unavoidable consequences.

Mary, herself, as John realises, would suffer from what Grace did and what happened to Grace. Bragg understands that people can behave badly without being bad, and that conscious virtue and intolerance may go together. One of the songs Mary and John sing together is “Daisy, Daisy”, with its happy assertion that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage; but this wasn’t Grace’s experience.

The pleasures of this elegant novel are many. Bragg’s detailed evocation of the Wigton of his youth, the people that lived there, the beauty of the Cumbrian scenery, the lively sense of the region’s long and varied history, is delightful. It’s a novel that deserves to be read slowly, the details cherished.

Grace’s story is perfectly judged; it is sad and grim, but Bragg’s respect for his character and his strong sense of a felt life, prevent it from being depressing. The Hardy echo sounds throbbingly, but Grace is not, like Hardy’s Tess, reduced to being a plaything of “the President of the Immortals”. The exploration of the twilight world of the aged and demented is tender, if unsparing. This is what we may all come to, and we may hope that there is someone as gentle and caring as Mary’s son, John, by our bedside. It’s a novel suffused with the idea and reality of the love between parent and child, beautifully realised without a trace of false sentiment.