*** DEBUG END ***

A story of shared bonds and separation

01 August 2014

Hester Jones relishes Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg


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 London.

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 biological mother.

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 distilling.

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 re-creation.

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 £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20 - Use code CT643); 978-1-444-76237-2.


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 pregnancy?

"I always wanted a girl": is Mrs Johnston entirely altruistic?

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 are intentional?

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 euthanasia?



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.

Book notes

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.

Author notes

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.

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