A Song For Issy Bradley, By Carys Bray, book review: Portrait of Mormons in crisis … by an insider

 

Carys Bray’s short story collection Sweet Home won the 2012 Scott Prize with its unflinching portrayal of domestic relationships. Now her debut novel A Song For Issy Bradley brings a forensic compassion to bear on grief, faith and the complexities of family life.

The novel tells the story of the Bradleys, Mormon believers dismantled by the loss of their four-year-old daughter, Issy, who dies, heartbreakingly and by increments, in the first chapters. Afterwards, mother Claire climbs into Issy’s bed and doesn’t come out. Around her the family tries to reassemble itself: the father, Ian, a man of unbending faith even in the face of tragedy, son Alma, bereaved and resentful, his footballing career hamstrung by his father’s scruples. Daughter Zippy’s grieving interconnects with more commonplace traumas – and joys – of adolescence. Amid this chaos, seven-year-old Jacob seeks the ultimate miracle.

Bray’s characters hum with life, each with a unique voice. For Claire, her faith shaky even before Issy’s death, Jesus has become the Child Catcher. God is a greedy deity who steals her daughter as Claire searches for “a game-changing word” to stop him: “A word like Rumpelstiltskin, a word which will overpower and break him.” Her husband, unable to acknowledge what has happened to his family, stumbles through the devastation, reacting in ways which are sometimes horrifying. At other times, by accident, he bumps up against the right thing to do.  Occasionally the ventriloquism can be uneven. Jacob’s voice contains the odd bum note, and Ian is a little opaque; we feel there must be more struggle beneath the rigid surface than we are let see. But these are quibbles, and this is a story peopled with astonishing vibrancy. It is also leavened with unexpected moments of humour, be it the absurdist events of Jacob’s daily life or Alma’s nice line in subversive wit.

Encircling them all is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Part of the fascination of this novel is that it’s a story told from the inside; Bray grew up Mormon before renouncing the faith in her early thirties, and she shows us this arcane world without resorting to caricature. There are the endless craft-based exhortations to good behaviour (the painted rock against which the believer hits her head in the evening, her foot in the morning, so she’ll never forget to pray), the unsettling metaphors (“If you kiss a girl and you don’t marry her, you’ve licked the butter off another man’s sandwich”), and the ceaseless fetishisation of marriage; teenage virgins are encouraged to parade in their mothers’ wedding dresses and select baby names. But there is community here too, in all its messy imperfection. Spoon-playing Brother Rimmer is a particular delight. (“You’re lucky,” he says, when Alma comes to call. “I’ve stuck my teeth in.”)

A Song For Issy Bradley is a wonderful novel, in which grace comes crabwise and miracles are never out of the question. Undeniably heartbreaking, it is also compassionate, funny and enriching.

Shelley Harris’s novel, Jubilee, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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