When I wrote about book groups in my last entry I forgot to say that when they work well you might just discover something marvellous, an unlooked for gem, an unsuspected treasure that otherwise you’d have missed. Grace and Mary is a case in point. Two weeks ago I associated Melvyn Bragg with the South Bank Show and Radio 4. I might have gone through life not realising he wrote fiction; it would have been my loss.
As it happens he’s written more than 30 books, including roughly 20 novels. Grace and Mary concerns seventy-something John’s visits to his elderly, mother, Mary, in her sea-side nursing home. Interwoven with these episodes, like verses to a refrain, is the story of Grace, Mary’s mother, who she hardly knew. It might not sound like much of a premise to hang a novel on but it’s magical.
It’s hard to resist a semi-autobiographical reading: John is roughly the same age as Bragg, London-based but from the North Lakes (like Bragg), and a writer (like Bragg); his mother, who as a baby was removed from her own mother, has dementia (like Bragg’s mother). And it’s certain that anyone with experience of dementia will recognise the truth – and tragedy – of Mary’s condition. She questions John about who he is and (conversely) and why he never visits (even though he does); how her husband is (he’s been dead for fourteen years) and when she’ll be going home (she isn’t). But even in her “confused present” there are occasional moments of lucidity, the “breath of recognition”: memory of songs, poems, and people from childhood; self-awareness, even, that she won’t get better. When Mary says she wants her “real mother”, Grace, John ponders whether he “could put together a memory for her…build it from fragments or make it up…bring back Grace” – this is the peg for Grace’s story.
Grace, raised by her grandfather and grandmother, Wilson and Sarah Carrick, in the small village of Oulton, fifteen miles from Carlisle, is pretty, clever, but “wild as any creature,” and it is her sense of being trapped, “stuck in the same village doing the same things with the same people,” and her desire to escape that ultimately costs her dear. Grace’s England expects its young men to be “cut down…scythed down just like corn” in the First World War and its young women to be married before they give birth. Grace falls pregnant and the father does a disappearing act. She has “lost herself”, is no longer “the Grace he (Wilson) knew”. A fallen women – fallen from grace, if you like – she finds her-self rejected by her community, cast out of her grandparent’s home; the child, Mary, is taken from her.
John, working on a biography of Wycliffe (“the man who had organised the first translation of the Bible into English”), straining to understand the workings of Mary’s mind, piecing together (and making-up) Grace’s story, explores the mystery of it all, “the worth and curse of religion.” He wants to believe “there to be an ending for her (Mary) better than a finish” but rejects how the “Bible was used by the powerful to impose grotesque sexual domination by the male, slavery on the female.” The key to it all, Wycliffe’s mind, his mother’s mind, her call for Grace, is “imagination”. Mary’s memories are mostly “just after the (Second World) war in the middle of the last century.” And it is in this era, at a party, “people from the town out for an evening’s celebration, Grace and Mary and himself, all of them formed in twin circles,” that all three generations are finally united in John’s imagination.
*** Highly recommended