This book is a tender and moving account of the relationship
between generations. Mary, who is suffering from vascular dementia
in a nursing home in Wigton, in north-west England, is visited by
her only son, John, who is retired from a successful career in
As Mary declines, John keeps in contact with her through music,
stories, rituals, and games, and, above all, by summoning memories
from her early and happy years. But this affectionate relationship
is also set against that between Mary and her own mother, Grace,
whose identity as her biological mother was concealed from Mary for
some years of her early childhood.
Mary calls for Grace in age, and it is as if the latter
symbolises the close-knit rural and religious community that
modernity has left behind. As Grace reached out for a larger and
more imaginatively sustaining world, however, she became excluded
from that community.
In his attempts to sustain his mother's mental connection with
him and with her own world - as these links shrink through her
illness, and also as he seeks to come to an understanding of his
own journey homewards - John "conjures up" Grace. His re-imagining
of his grandmother and her life-story brings to light the
correspondence between the experiences that they share - both are
separated from their home-world, and both suffer emotional and
geographical distance from Mary.
Imaginative recreation of this kind becomes the point of contact
between the generations, between a Christian and post-Christian
culture. Indeed, the narrator's gift with words, which has taken
him away from the country of his boyhood, becomes the means by
which he can, for a while, re-enter the place of his childhood, and
make his peace with it.
For all its sombre quality, this book is full of light and life.
A number of memorable anecdotes vividly express Mary's
characterfulness, and dancing takes a central place in John's
account of Mary's world. In this way, Mary's joyful embrace of
life, even in extremis, may be expressed.
We read that dancing transfigures an impoverished culture, and,
above all, the dance called the Valeta, with its wheeling shapes,
summons up the dynamic interpenetration of worlds which the book
seeks to imagine; for, we hear about this dance, "the glory was the
communion of the two circles."
Melvyn Bragg (above) resorts to religious language at
various points to convey the "common bond" that he identifies and
seeks to celebrate. Age, and responsibility for the aged, in the
vision of this book forms one such bond. But, at another level,
too, a feeling for common things is seen to exert such a hold over
Mary because she lacks the most common bond of all, that with her
So, underlying the book is a secondary theme of separation - the
imminent separation of son and mother, and the lifelong separation
of mother and daughter - of time passing and "every day a counted
loss". As the moments flow past, however, and as the narrator
re-flects on the experience of loss which presents itself in the
early stages of old age, the novel seeks to fix the "grain of
sand", the moment that is caught through its imaginative
Set alongside Bragg's reflections on the religious impulse, this
story invites us to consider in a similar context the desire for
something other than the merely material world as described by
science, and as defined by the New Atheists whose claims and
world-view have influenced our culture.
John naturally longs for such scientific progress to
"freeze-photograph" his mother's momentarily lucid mind, and to
arrest the processes of dying; but his awakening to the limits of
scientific progress, and increasing openness to simple being, with
its capacity for awe and joy, come almost as his mother's final
gift to him - the gift of age.
For all its affectionate imagining of an earlier and more rural
culture, this book is not just an elegiac pastoral. It raises many
questions with tact and thoughtfulness - in-cluding the nature and
experience of ageing, the quality of life that the very old may
enjoy, and the difference between memory and imaginative
Christian revelation, experienced to some extent in the book as
a stumbling-block, and associated with stiff ritual and harsh
ethics, is placed alongside a vision of Christian living in which
imaginative or contemplative attention - a willingness simply to be
- is central to Christian love.
How can we best imagine or contemplate the experience of the
aged, and how can we communicate lovingly with the elderly, so as
to appreciate and celebrate their gifts and wisdom? How, more
generally, can past and present speak to one another - in
particular, how can the vanishing culture of the country speak to
the fast-moving culture of modern London, and vice versa? There is
much to relish in this sensitive and appealing book.
The Revd Dr Hester Jones is senior lecturer in English at
Bristol University, and Vicar of Abbots Leigh with Leigh Woods, in
the diocese of Bristol.
Grace and Mary by MelvynBragg is published by Sceptre at
Bookshop £7.20 - Use code CT643);
Is Mary happier in her past, or in her present?
Who teaches Grace more: Miss Errington, or Miss Birkett?
Does Mr Walker represent faith or futility?
Why do you think Wilson reacts as he does to Grace's
"I always wanted a girl": is Mrs Johnston entirely
Is Alan a complicated character, or a liar and a cad?
In his later life, John cares for Mary, whose life is infused
with thoughts of Grace. Do you think these obvious Gospel overtones
How believable a character is the Vicar?
Does Alfred act to protect Alan, or his own good name?
Echoing her biblical namesake, Sarah cares for children in her
later life. To what extent is Wilson a metaphor for Abraham?
Why does Martha dislike Grace so intensely?
Does Grace and Mary make a case for or against
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 September, we will print
extra information about the next book. This is Places
of Enchantment by Graham B. Usher. It is published by
SPCK at £10.99 (CT Bookshop
£9.90 - use code CT643); 978-0-281-06792-3.
In ten chapters, Graham Usher considers the place of the natural
landscape in the Christian's pilgrimage towards God. He notes the
spiritual benefits cited by many who spend recreation time
outdoors, and considers how the experience of God in the natural
world may influence our understanding of our earthly journey.
He deals with different types of landscape, and quotes
extensively from theologians of different periods, including our
own. In describing each landscape - from the Scottish Highlands to
the skyline of New York - he also considers landscapes in art,
literature, and poetry. Bishop Usher provides a theological setting
for questions about our enjoyment and protection of landscapes
today, and how we may be able to perceive in the natural world
truths about the nature of God and the life of heaven.
The Rt Revd Graham Usher grew up in Ghana, and took a degree in
Ecological Science at Edinburgh University in 1993. He trained for
ordination at Westcott House, and, in 2004, became Rector and
Lecturer of Hexham Abbey. During this time, he served asa lay
member of the Governance and Access Committee of the Newcastle
Biomedicine Biobank, and as chairman of the Northeast Forestry and
Woodlands Advisory Committee of the Forestry Commission. An
honorary canon of St Cyprian's Cathedral, Kumasi, in Ghana, he was
consecrated bishop for the see of Dudley in March this year.
Books for the next two months:
The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook
The Master and Margarita by Mikail Bulgakov