Heartbreaking tragedy of brave women told with deep respect

I had long been a fan of Melvyn Bragg’s South Bank Show on television, but despite being a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I had read little of him before I picked up this novel. upon publication. I’ve read more of her novels since, but Grace and Mary had by far the biggest impact on me.

The chapters alternate between the present, when the narrator visits the retirement home where his mother is lost due to dementia, and the past, which recreates his life and that of his own mother.

Grace is a gifted child who has a chance, through education, to escape the poverty of her environment. Then an unfair incident, in which she comes to the aid of her vulnerable sister, destroys this slim opportunity. Grace overcomes this setback and is well until a greater tragedy (the accidental death of her beloved sister) breaks the moorings of her world and sets her on a heartbreaking path that involves single motherhood, the abandonment by the father of his child and the abandonment of his baby. Mary is that baby, and her and Grace’s stories are told by Mary’s son, John.

It is a memoir in the guise of fiction; Bragg reveals the lives of his mother (Mary) and grandmother (Grace) in a way that will be long remembered. The small town of Cumbria of the writer’s youth is vividly evoked, as is the scenic beauty and the rich and varied history of this county in the north-west of England. But what stands out above all is the loving and respectful way in which the two courageous women at the heart of the story come to life.

Why did Bragg not write simple memoirs because the story is so narrowly autobiographical? Part of it may well be because he probably didn’t know many details of his grandmother’s life (as John explains in the novel, he must have made up a lot of Grace’s story). But it may also be that novels can tell bigger and deeper truths than factual memories.

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