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.
Bragg has chosen fiction rather than biography to explore his own mother’s condition, and in doing so he skillfully suggests how fiction may be a truer medium for grasping the elusiveness of reality than a narrative pieced together via factual chronology.
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.
The Last Dance
by Victoria Hislop
These 10 tales of Greek life evoke a strong sense of place, from the dusty streets of Athens to shady little taverns in village squares.
Each story focuses on a simple, clearly defined theme: feuding twins, protective parents, ancient grievances, and young love. Modern Greek history, from the Nazi occupation to the present-day economic crisis and riots, is integral to many of the stories. The style is limpid, echoed in the simple line drawings that accompany each tale. They slip down like ice cream on a hot day; and perhaps are about as substantial. Sometimes one feels that the story is just too simple and the message just too obvious. For all that, they are refreshingly readable. Just the thing to pack in your holiday hand luggage, especially if you are going to Greece.
by Ronald Frame
This novel is a prequel to Great Expectations, recounting Miss Havisham’s backstory: the daughter of a wealthy brewer, she is sent to stay with a titled family to learn social airs and graces, and meets the attractive but treacherous Compeyson at a series of parties and masked balls, and ... well, we know the rest. Ronald Frame has done a clever job; Catherine Havisham is believable, and the period is convincingly evoked. But I couldn’t help wondering what the point of it all was. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is not only a brilliant novel in its own right, but makes it impossible ever to read Jane Eyre in the same way again. The same cannot be said of Havisham; it is consistent with its parent text, but adds nothing to it. It also outstays its welcome; there are about three false endings and the last few pages were a chore to read.
Anyone Who Had a Heart
by Burt Bacharach
Burt Bacharach, the Grammy and Oscar-winning composer famed for hits including Walk On By, What’s New Pussycat? and Do You Know The Way to San José, certainly has some tales to tell. There’s the time he found Marlene Dietrich in his hotel room washing his socks. There’s also the time he was invited to perform at a reception at the White House, during which President Reagan fell into a deep sleep.
Bacharach’s autobiography, written with the journalist Robert Greenfield, is a Who’s Who of the people who powered the entertainment industries from the Sixties onwards. It is an intriguing tale of how a kid from New York with a musical streak rose, alongside his writing partner Hal David, to become one of the most unashamedly commercial and in-demand composers of his time. But it’s also a series of foggy snapshots. The narrative is disjointed, often repeating the same anecdotes from differing points of view.