MELLBREAK, landmark and destination of Marie-Elsa Bragg’s savagely elegant novel, stands like a vast barrow, or burial mound, above Crummock Water in West Cumbria. Its dominance of untamed spaces, summarised in fells and cloudscapes, hallmarks the landscape and weather that rule this story of a hill-farming family, enclosed in time on the doorstep of eternity. If Thomas Hardy had ventured to historic Cumberland, this is the tenor of the tale that he would have written.
Towards Mellbreak (Features, 7 April) is the story of Harold Marras, his wife, Esther, mother, Catherine, son, Stephen, and uncle, Joe, who helps on their isolated farm. In the background is Catherine’s brother, John, a medical missionary in China, disclosed through his letters from the 1920s. The book is set, just before Harold and Esther’s marriage, between 1971 and 1994, and against a background quotation from 1 Kings. This includes a mention of a juniper tree that provides a key motif to turning-points.
Bragg writes with cinematic poetry: in empathetic close-up to her few characters, in wide-angled landscape illumination of the fellscapes that both liberate and contain them. The world that she conjures so deftly is a world away from the visitors’ Lake District. There is not a tourist to be seen in Bragg’s back-breaking Cumbria: her landscapes are a re-wilding of somewhere more continuing, more ancient. Events are a cycle of work conditioned by season. Anonymous outsiders bring threats to this enclosed world through bureaucratic regulation. The “new vicar” dilutes the hard duty of the Maundy Thursday watch by providing tea and biscuits.
It is Catherine, among Bragg’s richly realised characters, who provides the book’s spiritual stimulus, struggling with her faith and yet inherently helping Esther in her Christian pilgrimage. John’s letters, written as crisis deepens across central China, form almost an alternative scripture that Harold later adopts. Esther, searching, acts as a surrogate priest, hearing Catherine’s confession, which includes her doubts about God’s closeness. Bragg, a priest in London diocese, brings acute Christian insights naturally and thoughtfully into her story, awarding hospitable space for readers’ responses.
While offering one devastating conclusion, the novel leaves others open, particularly the potential for decoding symbolism. This is never forced, but coaxed gently through parallel biblical references to sheep and shepherds, a possible holy mountain, and the translation of liturgy and allegory in Anglican experience.
Sometimes in clipped sentences like gasped breath, sometimes by unfurling parables of light over landscapes, Bragg recreates an extraordinary, often disregarded world, uniting farm and fell, work and prayer, suffering and redemption in new and powerful ways.
Dr Halsall is a poet and journalist, living and writing in West Cumbria.
Chatto & Windus £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70