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Review: Grace and Mary, By Melvyn Bragg

Tender and moving, this novel about the loss of memory also reaffirms the value of the storyteller

I have reasons, both general and personal, to be grateful to Melvyn Bragg. He has showcased the arts in ways from which not just the public but all artists have benefited. My Thursday mornings are enlightened by his eclectic and informative In Our Time Radio 4 programmes. And now he has written a new novel apparently sourced by, if not based on, the experience of losing his mother to Alzheimer's disease: an experience I share.

Grace and Mary is that under-sung form of novel, a quiet book. As a writer of so-called quiet books myself, I am prejudiced in their favour, although Bragg's reputation means his novels need never suffer a quiet reception. The novel is told from the perspective of John, bookish son of doughty Cumbrian Mary, now in a nursing home. She is the daughter of Grace, of whose life her grandson, John, is ignorant.

The mother-son attachment is tenderly rendered as John tries to spark his mother's memory by recollections of the Cumbrian countryside, his own upbringing in Wigton, and by photos and references to his mother's old pleasures, song and dance. This is touchingly alluded to in their joint rendition of “Daisy Daisy”, a song that is also a delicate piece of irony. For the past has its revenants: Mary's dead husband, with whom John becomes in his mother's wayward mind confused (a characteristic of dementia); and his grandmother, Grace, whose fate was the tragic opposite of the eponymous Daisy's, and for whom her aged daughter plaintively cries.

As John seeks to find palliatives for his mother's condition, he constructs, or reconstructs (the novel is tactfully opaque about which), his grandmother's history on a 19th-century Cumbrian farm — a world of many virtues but informed by a pitiless morality. It is this construction, or creation, which is the heart of the novel. Dementia can foster a kind of kaleidoscope of the past, the malfunctioning memory throwing out darting and colourful scraps of recollection.

This past, as relived in a person who “lived mostly in the constant present”, creates a special kind of perceptual prism through which constantly dissolving and reforming patterns may be perceived. Bragg has chosen fiction rather than biography to explore his own mother's condition, and in doing so he skilfully suggests how fiction may be a truer medium for grasping the elusiveness of reality than a narrative pieced together via factual chronology. However accurate John's picture of his grandmother's history, it allows him to understand his mother more completely — how her separation from her own mother will have affected her and, in turn, him.

This is a novel which beautifully conveys how the past is a continuum that constantly feeds our consciousness of the present, altering its current and direction. It is starkly truthful about the perils of ageing. But it is also a convincing testimony to familial love, and its power to prompt the imagination in the service of a more generous understanding.

Because of the subject matter, I was touchily ready to find fault with this book. It is a gem. I was glad to find my fears unconfirmed.

Salley Vickers's latest novel, 'The Cleaner of Chartres', is published by Penguin