Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
Grace and Mary
Melvyn Bragg (Hodder & Stoughton: £18.99; e-book £9.49)
I suppose I should have been put off this book early on. Recounting an exchange with his mother, the eponymous Mary, John remembers her saying that he was a Johnston. No! he replied sharply – he knew what Johnstons were like.
Aside from that frivolous objection, there is not a bad word to be said about this work. It is semi-autobiographical. As it was being written, Melvyn Bragg’s own mother was dying in a nursing home in Cumbria, as is Mary. Mary’s son John comes to visit from London and those visits invoke many memories from his own past. These are interspersed with passages from the life of Mary’s own mother, Grace, whom she barely knew. The balance between the now, the recent past and Melvyn Bragg’s Old Cumbria is perfect. The scenes fade easily into one another. The word “lyrical”, with its evocation of the time and place of the Wordsworths, is made for this.
It is some time since Melvyn Bragg was spoken of principally for his fiction. His back catalogue is well worthy of exploration. I sincerely hope this lovely book will be a key to new treasures for some, and a recherche du temps perdu for others.
The Berlin Crossing
Kevin Brophy (Headline: £7.99; e-book £4.99)
Herr Doktor Michael Ritter, a teacher in Brandenburg, Germany, loses his teaching post when, following the fall of the Berlin Wall four years previously, his file is reviewed and it is found he had been an active chairman of the International Student Friendship Society, believed to be "recruiting grounds for spies and informers". He is dismissed as he is reminded: "Education is about young hearts and minds – about opening those hearts and minds and shaping them to contribute to the good of society." As his mother lies dying, she tells him a little about his father, who he has never known.
So starts a superlative narrative as Ritter sets off to find those who can tell him about his father. The story unfolds as we learn of a brief relationship by his mother with a man, born in Ireland to German parents, who, caught up with his brother in criminality in London, falls into the clutches of British intelligence. Pastor Bruck holds the key, and handing over a notebook enables Ritter to unravel the story. Brophy writes with clarity and brings the tensions of the Cold War and life in the former DDR alive. There is tension too in the efforts taken by his mother to maintain contact with his father, despite the appalling treatment, as well as by others who live with the constant fear that, like Ritter, the past will return with a price to be paid. The fallacy that the wall was built to keep the West out, rather than the reality that those in the east were fleeing in droves, risking the economic collapse of the east, is almost palpable. This is a gripping narrative.
The Human Part
Kari Hotakainen (MacLehose Press: £12.99; e-book £11.47)
In The Human Part, the idea of the story of a life is taken to an extreme. An author approaches an elderly woman and asks to buy her life story. He’s out of ideas and needs some fuel for his creative fire. As a writer, I find this to be a fascinating concept.
Salme Sinikka Malmikunnas may not have thought things through when agreeing to sell on her memories, of that need the writer might have to twist what he hears into more interesting shapes. The money’s good and the task doesn’t seem too onerous, so she takes the writer on. From this point, in a meandering tale told from a number of perspectives, we get to know Salme and her many facets. She has sharp elbows, a quick tongue, a beating heart and a bucketful of tragedy. She sees the world as tinted in rose when she needs it to be and tinted in grey when it fits the mood. Her status and her place within society allow for an examination of Finnish life and politics that is gently engaging, even to this outsider with no knowledge of Finland or its history.
Of course, when the author takes hold of her words, he needs to change them in order to make them more interesting. In the process of doing so, a new world is created and Salme isn’t all that happy with the result, especially with the recreation of her children.
I didn’t find this to be a story that I could immediately get comfortable with. I did manage to adapt to the pace after a while and found myself enjoying the charming voices that were in the driving seat. Beautiful phrases are in evidence on every page. Sometimes they seem deep and profound; sometimes they carry the simplicity of twisted colloquialism; sometimes it’s as poetic observation and reflection. There’s plenty here to enjoy. It’s a lovely book to be savoured when you have lots of time, you’re in the mood for some contemplation and possibly when you have a large glass of wine to hand.