Rating 4 stars
Towards Mellbreak is Marie-Elsa Bragg’s first novel. It’s set in a part of the Lake District that we love to visit, by Crummock Water and Buttermere.
It’s the story of a hill farming family and the difficulties they face in keeping their farm going from the 1970s to the 1990s. I learned a lot from it. Bragg’s writing also put me into a better head space than I’ve been in for a few weeks. She’s paced it in an interesting way. Each chapter is set in a season in a single year, but the action mainly takes place over a matter of days, not the full season. There are gaps between the years as well. What emerges are quietly important moments in the family’s story. I felt my head slowing down as I read and I enjoyed that very much.
It was a delight to read about what goes on in the landscape we dip in and out of as tourists. I’ve seen the Herdwick sheep grazing on the fell sides and the lowlands around the two lakes.
I’ve never thought about the farmers who raise them and care for them. I didn’t know that the hill farmers raise the lambs for a short time, doing the hard work of keeping them alive in difficult conditions, barely making a living, before selling the lambs on to the lowland farmers who fatten them up over a few days and then reap the profit at market. I hadn’t ever thought about how the Government has interfered with the hill farmers’ livelihood, including its insistence on the use of organophosphates in sheep dipping and the disastrous drainage schemes intended to increase production, to the extent that many farms have gone out of business over the years. The novel was a real eye opener for me.
The story is about human relationships, between grandparents, uncles, parents and children, between husbands and wives, between fellow farmers. Family history is woven through the telling, with both the First and Second World Wars looming large in the background, as it still did in my family in the 1970s.
That early setting of the 1970s at the start of the book reminded me of my own childhood, particularly the way the generation that lived through the war or grew up during the war and the years following hung onto the ways and traditions of an earlier generation. The family at the heart of this story behave in ways that seem old fashioned now, but I remember them being normal when I was a child. From dressing a particular way for church to reading or doing some kind of craft work in the evening, or walking to places nearby instead of jumping in the car. I remember that slower pace of life, filled with enough time to be bored that would lead to creativity or conversation or something else that seems quaint now that we all rush around, and flit from bright, noisy stimulus to bright, noisy stimulus, afraid of being that terrible thing that boredom now stands for.
So although I was an urban child, I felt a kinship with the characters in this novel. I greatly enjoyed getting to know them, as the author allowed their personalities to percolate and develop. I felt as though I was there with them, quietly observing.
There was an air about the book that put me in mind of Thomas Hardy, where landscape is as much a character in the book as the people are. The people react and respond to the landscape around Mellbreak and the North Western Fells. The names of the mountains and peaks also make the land seem like people.
There are moments of sadness, like when Esther leaves her family behind to start a new life on the farm with Harold, and the way she tries to balance the needs of her mother, who has dementia, with her own need to be her own person. I found that touched me in specific ways, although I was already my own person when my mum developed dementia and it was more that I felt an old version of me was being wrenched back into existence, instead of a new one being hampered. There is sadness, too, in the grief that Harold carries with him for his parents and the way they cannot help him as he wishes to be helped. His grandmother and his dad’s cousin who help run the farm with him are not quite the same, not quite enough. That touched me, too, because although my mum lived for seven years after my dad died, it’s as though she died within a year of him and as though I’ve been without parents for a long time. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, lately. About how you can have people around you who care about you, but they’re never the same as the parent you’re closest to. I wonder if that ever fades.
I didn’t want to presume, and it isn’t mentioned in her bio, but the surname Bragg when associated with Cumbria says Melvyn to me, and the fact that Marie-Elsa Bragg writes about dementia reminded me that Melvyn Bragg has also written about dementia in Grace and Mary, drawing on family experience. I had a couple of people, thinking they were being supportive I’m sure, tell me not long after my mum’s diagnosis that I should read Grace and Mary. I had, and still have, a reluctance to read books that I know contain characters with dementia. It feels like too much to engage with. And yet Towards Mellbreak hasn’t been too much to engage with. I didn’t know there was a character with dementia before I started reading, and perhaps because she’s a side character, it hasn’t been too difficult. Maybe I will read Grace and Mary, even knowing that it’s the focus of the book.
But yes, Melvyn is the dad of Marie-Elsa, and perhaps enjoying her book is another reason to try something by him.
A surprising aspect of the book is the way letters from a missionary brother in China during the 1920s intersperse the narrative. John, the missionary, is the brother of Catherine, Harold’s grandmother. Catherine struggles with her faith and her brothers letters are a touchstone for her. She shares them with family members as she sees fit, matching the contents of a letter with a moment of difficulty the other person is struggling with. Bragg has researched the history of the Christian mission to China using the archives held at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and the letters she imagines are compelling. I found them interesting as a window into the history of Western involvement in China, but also as a window into how people deal with hardship. In them, John speaks of the hardship of caring about the people he ministers to at a hospital mission, of finding a form of peace in the struggle to care for them when his presence isn’t welcome and even causes danger. It’s a message of commitment to something that matters, even when it causes pain to do so, and to walk away seems the easier option. That message is echoed in the family’s commitment to their farm and to each other, even in the hardest times.
Those hard times end sadly for one character. I would say tragically, but in the midst of the pain and suffering, there is still hope and love. It is a sad book but it’s also a beautiful one, where the ways and traditions of the hill farmers of Cumbria knit together into a community, and where remembering the past adds strength to the present.