This week’s recommended read comes from our Reading Resources Intern, Nikki Gallagher, who suggests Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg.
“ ‘Hello,’ he said. He took her mottled hand. It was cold. He rubbed it. ‘It’s John’.
‘John? No it isn’t’.
There was a sorrow but there was a calm also. His task was to take her away from this confused present, to lead her into the past, which could be patched up or made up or truly remembered but above all – safe. Safe, safe, safe and away from the abyss that threatened.”
Melvyn Bragg, Grace and Mary
Dementia is a tough subject to write about, but Melvyn Bragg does it beautifully in this gentle novel about Mary, an elderly lady from a lovely market town called Wigton in Cumbria. Mary is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and lives in a care home.
Mary’s son, John, lives in London, but makes a regular trip down on the train to visit her. In what he hopes will help her to remember the past, he puts together the story of her own mother, Grace, and that of Mary too, so that she can connect the memories and become, he hopes, almost herself again.
Grace’s tale is set in the Victorian period, during a time of hardship, living in slums, and struggling to find enough work. Grace is brought up on a farm by her Grandparents, as her mother died after giving birth to her, and her father marries a woman who wants nothing to do with his children. John tells his mother’s story starting from the post-war period, when he was a young lad himself and the slums were getting knocked down and replaced with council housing, right up to when she finally meets her mother, Grace.
We also see John’s own experience of his mother’s illness, how guilty he feels for not noticing earlier because he lived so far away and scarcely saw her, and wishing constantly that there was a way to cure to her illness.
At one point, they sing the Hokey-Cokey together, and she sings louder and louder, loving every moment, until the care home staff come in to watch. That small moment where she becomes herself again is emotional and brings home the knowledge that underneath the disease, she is still there, still his mother.
Mary’s dementia continues to send her on a downward spiral, and these glimpses show how difficult it is for a son, so devoted to his mother, to watch her fade away and become someone else.
The beauty of the Cumbrian scenery that is so often described in the book, the sunsets over the fells, the sea and the ever-changing weather, makes this a cosy and comforting read, at the same time as it shows us the sad face of dementia. One of my absolute favourites, and a book I find myself returning to every now and again.