Friday 29 January 2016

Grace and Mary, Melvin Bragg

Bragg’s Grace and Mary is a touching portrayal of a son desperately holding on to his mother as Alzheimer’s takes away her memories and sense of self. The ageing John makes the long drive from London to Cumbria as regularly as he can but always with a sense of guilt that he is not there more often. His visits are clearly painful to him as he ponders the impact of the loss of personal history. His love for his mother, however, is unceasingly apparent as he attempts to recreate her memories of the past.

In her distress Mary calls out for Grace, her mother. Initially this feels a statement of longing for parental comfort that never leaves us, a desire for the innocence of times past. As the novel progresses, however, and the story of Grace is revealed to us by John, we come to realise that perhaps it is a distress at a life unlived, now forever out of reach.

Grace’s story is a sad one from the moment of her birth, her mother not surviving the ordeal. She grows in to a beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed young woman but is faced with numerous tragedies. The past is clearly evoked in the descriptions of her experiences and the frustrations of a judgemental society. John’s narrative is so detailed, so evocative, that the reader forgets that we have an unreliable narrator. He is reconstructing the past from tales his mother told him, fabricating where necessary.

He questions Mary, attempting to nudge her memories, to bring her back to herself. At some moments he is successful, at others he pushes too hard. Although clearly painful for him, when asked about his father, deceased over a decade previous, he constructs an account of his day as though he were no further than down the road, at their home. John delights in the effect this has on his mother and allows himself to indulge in the fantasy.

A touching novel that deals with very real issues. The distress of coping with losing a loved one to Alzheimers is accompanied by the pressing struggle of an ageing society to support its elders. John’s grief and guilt are very relatable and the palpable love he has for his mother makes this an emotional read.

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