Grace and Mary

by Melvyn Bragg

I picked this book up in the library, having had it on my ‘ to read’ list a while ago while reading up about dementia (but then let it drop off).

There are two stories here, loosely connected.  One is the story of Mary towards the end of her life, and the memories that she is able to evoke vividly with the help of her son John, who sees reminiscing as a valuable way for Mary to experience brief moments of pleasure in her increasing dementia.  I have the feeling that this is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story of Bragg and his mother.

The second story is that of Grace, who, as we later learn, is Mary’s mother.  We follow Grace’s birth, her childhood under the care of grandparents (her mother having died in childbirth), her relationship with her father and jealous stepmother, and her seduction by an injured solider in WWI which ends in Mary’s illegitimate birth.

Whilst both stories are well told, it is Mary’s (and John’s) story that grabbed my attention.  Bragg writes well but his prose does not sparkle; he writes, I would say, popular rather than literary fiction.  Nothing wrong with that!  But then the story, setting and characters must be interesting enough to make the book worth reading.  For me, Grace’s story was sad but predictable, and hers was the only character in this story that really came to life.  Mary and John, on the other hand, have a present-day story that is meaningful, and there characters held my interest.

I would not read more Bragg in a hurry, though I have huge respect for him a presenter and scholar.