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Sleeping Letters, by Marie-Elsa R. Bragg

10 July 2020

Malcolm Doney reviews a ‘love letter’ that defies literary classification

SLEEPING LETTERS defies conventional literary classification. It is — at one and the same time — prayer, contemplation, poetry, confession, and memoir.

Marie-Elsa Bragg recalls the death by suicide of her mother when she, herself, was just six years old. Bragg is an Anglican priest, Ignatian spiritual director, and therapist, and — over the course of two silent, mountain retreats — found herself reflecting on the death of her mother more than 40 years earlier, and its reverberations in her life. She describes the book as a kind of “love letter” to her mother, her father (the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg), herself, and God.

The different styles and genres that she chooses interweave like separate colours, differing threads, and mixed textures. and they cross-refer, forming a rich, variegated, and tactile tapestry.

We experience, in an almost visceral way, what it felt like to wake to find that her mother — whose bed she would normally visit before dawn — was dead behind a locked bedroom door. The shock, the bewilderment, and the grief cut deep, causing longer-lasting wounds of guilt, regret, rage, and loss: all profoundly and lyrically expressed.

This is not an easy or a quick read, but it deserves and repays attention. There is a sombre rhythm to it: a regular beat provided by poems that detail the priest’s careful preparation and gesture in presiding at the eucharist. This stately choreography — complete with “stage directions”: pleat, fold, bow, lean forward — provides a structure providing space for the inexplicable. There is something elegiac about this physicality, as if providing the consolation of the last offices on a troubled memory:

it is only left for me to bow . . .
With my forefinger I take chrism from the gold pot
and anoint your eyelids, forehead, lips,
and then your heart.

But there is more than sorrow here. At the heart of the weaving and folding process of Sleeping Letters is the sense that everything is sacred. The sacredness is embodied in the natural world as much as the mysteries of the eucharist — especially in the Solway marshes of her childhood: “moonlit florets of hogweed drifting into the swamps. A white orchid folded into its long paper leaves. Ribwort tight in an orbit of dreams.”

This is a sad book, yes, but brim-full of love.

Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.


Sleeping Letters
Marie-Elsa R. Bragg
Chatto & Windus £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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