A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, book review: Rich insight into Mormon life in UK

 

happy the debut novelist who can write well but who also has access to extraordinary subject matter. Carys Bray, author of Sweet Home, an acclaimed book of short stories, drew on her own upbringing for this tender story about a strict Mormon family (no tea, coffee or alcohol; voluminous undergarments), and thereby opens a door into a little-known world.

Claire converts to the faith on marrying Ian Bradley. Four children swiftly follow: Zipporah, known as Zippy, Alma (a boy, named after a Mormon prophet), Jacob and Issy. As the novel opens, Ian, now Bishop Bradley, puts his church duties before his family's needs, something he calls "sacrifice". As he attends a missionary meeting, and Claire resentfully organises Jacob's birthday party, Issy falls into a fever without anyone noticing. By the time the fateful rash appears, and she is rushed to intensive care, it is too late.

Bray writes movingly from the perspective of each member of the family in turn as they try to cope with the tragedy. Ian is the most opaque, his calm faith seemingly unshaken. Alma feels guilty for having been mean and disdainful to his little sister; Zippy is struggling with the Church's tenets on sex and the role of women; and Jacob takes the elders' talk of resurrection and miracles all too seriously and believes Issy is about to return. Meanwhile Claire falls deeper into a depression exacerbated by the congregation's refusal to let the family grieve – after all, they are "special", "chosen" by God to undergo this test.

Claire comforts a distraught Zippy that Issy won't be alone in heaven: "She'll be with my mum." "Issy might be with Mum's mum, provided Mum's mum has accepted the gospel," corrects Ian. "If Mum's mum hasn't accepted the gospel yet she'll be waiting in the Spirit Prison." In one deliciously awful scene, the Church spinster visits the stricken Claire to inform her that she would be willing to become the Bishop's next sexual partner.

Incidental details make for rich humour, whether it's Alma pondering the oeuvre of The Killers – "Brandon Flowers is a member of the church… according to Dad, it's worse for [him] to write songs about smoking and taking girls' clothes off" – or Zipporah's coat hanger labelled: "Hang onto your goals… hang on to your values… hang on to your testimony… so one day you can hang your wedding dress on me." But the humour is never mocking or unkind, the issues are fairly dealt with and Bray demonstrates the comforts of faith – the magic, hope and imagination - as well as its restrictions. This is an impressive debut from a compassionate, wise and original new voice.

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