………………………..Like the Cumbrian landscape in which it takes place, this is a book which overcomes its rather serious and bleak subject matter about a son’s last attempts to head off the full onset of his mother’s crippling dementia, with a narrative that rises way above any grim clouds and that inevitable fading of the light to become quite simply, a beautiful love story. There’s something very special, and very soothing about the way in which the book seems to summon up some of our darkest fears about growing old, lay them out starkly before us and then seems to say ‘don’t worry, – however difficult it might be, you’ll be with peopole who love you…..so it’ll be alright’.
John is a 71 year old, retired businessman making regular visits from his home in London to visit Mary, his mother, who is in a care home in Wigton in his native Cumbria. Despite his mothers increasing dementia and the distance, these visits become John’s lifeline to his mother and eventually to his own past. Mary’s recognition and awareness of John varies as the dementia takes hold and so after she calls out in distress one evening for her mother, Grace, John tries to help his mothers failing memory by reaching back to the past, recreating the story of her childhood and that of her mother Grace. His account of Mary and Grace’s history is lovingly reconstructed to try and engage Mary. But it’s almost entirely imagined, for alternating with the present day story of John and Mary, is Grace’s real story of the past, a woman who neither John nor Mary really knew. What unfolds is the heartbreaking contrast between the real and the imagined, for Mary was an illegitimate child born to Grace at a time when a single unmarried woman bringing up a child outside of marriage was simply unthinkable. Grace and Mary never have that mother-daughter relationship in the way John later describes it and yet the real and the imagined stories of Grace and Mary do have something in common – Grace’s love for her daughter which is unquenchable and unbreakable. The tragic difference is that in real life it was a love from afar, as a visiting family friend rather than the mother Grace longs to be at the time and which Mary craves decades later.
As John makes frequent trips to his mother’s bedside, the book unfolds John’s love for his mother as an only child, his reflections on his life now, in the past and to come, and the story he weaves as he tries to imagine what Grace and Mary’s relationship would have been. Grace’s story is of her own mother who she barely knew and her child, lost to the narrow moral values of the time in which she lived. As the book progresses John charts more and more of his mother’s illness, her surroundings and their history together. The present is there of course but it’s as much for it to be a trigger for a special memory or as a reference point to their past more than anything else – it’s noticeable that throughout the book you learn much about John’s thoughts and feelings about his past but his present and his immediate family are scarcely mentioned.
Melvyn Bragg has managed to take the fairly heavy storyline and turn it into something which has a continually light and gentle feel – almost tender. It’s a wonderful achievement when you think about the main character being a woman living out her final years in a care home, suffering the rapid onset of dementia. And of course, for me and no doubt for many others, that fear of dementia is an increasingly common and increasingly real fear too. But as dark and grim as the subject sometimes is, the book is anything but, because it’s just so beautifully balanced. So for example the awfulness of that dementia for Mary and John is balanced with the care in the home, the engagement of the care staff, and John’s patient recreation of the childhood Mary never actually had. Equally there’s a lovely balance between the story of Grace’s past and Mary’s present. For all that there is such tragedy and lost potential in Grace’s actual life story, with such a feel of ‘what might have been’, the sheer depth of the love between John and his mother in a sense actually makes up for it – as if ‘what might have been’ between Grace and Mary, is somehow compensated for in part by the ‘what it became’ between Mary and John.
It’s a book that has at its core that very unique relationship between a mother and her child. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a strong feel for that mother-child bond. Grace’s love for Mary is all-consuming and years later, John’s care of his mother is exactly the same. And yet it avoids becoming all a bit too ‘nice’ by giving the contrast of John’s relationships with his own family – they’re pretty much bit-part players throughout the novel. And as an almost two-fingered gesture to that monster dementia, it’s a novel which perversely seems to celebrate the power of simple everyday memories. I loved John’s recollections of his father, of their childhood home, of the way old photographs sparked reminiscing, of the way hearing snippets of music set John and Mary off remebering dancing, or singing much loved songs ( at one point John and Mary literally perform an all-action Hokey Cokey – and as ludicrous as it sounds it’s actually very moving!). So much of the book reminded me of the beautiful Elbow song ‘Scattered Black and Whites”.
In some ways Grace and Mary is about coming to terms with ageing, dying and our pasts. As I read it I kept thinking about Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ – it’s as if the novel says that Dylan is partly right and we ought not to go too gently and meekly, but that he’s also partly wrong, for there’s no need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ either! Instead it seems to suggest we take up a position somewhere between the two!
And even though Grace and Mary is a very quiet, gentle read, it’s neither lightweight nor predictable. Far from it. It’s painful to read in some places for there’s a harsh, almost raw feel to the way that John reflects on his life now and as it was when he was a child, and of course if you do consider that spectre of dementia as I know I do, then it’s effect on Mary, and on her relationship with John and with everything else around her is both distressing and frightening. But ultimately it’s just so beautifully written. The characters are wonderfully drawn, engaging, interesting and real – and even their flaws have something gorgeously real-life about them. It’s also one of those rare books where the setting is almost a character in itself – Wigton might be dark, cold and bleak at times, but there’s a real sense of affection in the way Melvyn Bragg has also given beauty to both its scenery and its inhabitants – for this is a Northern England of big hearts and open arms.
I’ve long been a fan of Melvyn Bragg, ever since I stumbled across his novel Crystal Rooms many years ago. Now of course he’s a Lord, much heralded critic and broadcaster and what a work colleague once described for me as the most perfect combination of sex appeal and intellect. (………..I won’t comment on that beyond the fact that I didn’t share her opinion then and I don’t now – I think it’s me rather than Melvyn who is that perfect combination but that’s a debate for another day!) But setting all that to one side he is, amidst all his other talents, a great writer. At the time of publication for Grace and Mary some reviews compared it to Thomas Hardy – and its a comparison that for me Grace and Mary thoroughly deserves. I loved it so much that for me, this is the best Melvyn Bragg novel I’ve read….and a very last minute contender for the best book I’ve read in 2014!
My copy of ‘Grace and Mary’ by Melvyn Bragg was published by Sceptre in 2013. I bought it with my own hard-earned cash and well worth every penny it was too!
Surprisingly there aren’t a huge number of other blog reviews of Grace and Mary out there that I could find, but if you want to read what someone else thought of it, I liked this one at Dove Grey Reader.
After finishing the book I found out that Melvyn Bragg wrote the novel in the wake of his own mothers death from dementia. There’s an interesting article from May 2013 at Bryan Appleyard and an interview he did with the Guardian back in 2013
And if you don’t already know it, here’s a snippet of that Elbow track ‘Scattered Black and Whites’ in case you’re interested enough to give it a listen – you should – it’s wonderful!
Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)