The death of the youngest child in a devout Mormon family provides rich material for a novel. Ian, the father, born into the faith, is a Bishop of the church; his wife Claire became a Mormon as an adult through her love for Ian, and chafes under many of the teachings and attitudes; the two teenagers, Zippy and Alma (Alma is a boy; it’s a measure of the humorlessness of the culture that no one sees why a teenage boy would prefer to be called Al), are caught between the demands of ordinary teenagerhood and the stifling culture they’ve grown up in, and little Jacob firmly believes that a miracle will bring his sister Issy back.
The book begins and ends with the bereaved mother Claire and for me this was the part that sparked. Bray, once a Mormon herself, has plenty to say about the effect the religion has on spontaneous human emotion and healthy engagement with the world, but nowhere does the world make more urgent claims on the human spirit than it does in these two chapters where Claire walks by the sea searching for
A reassuring glimpse; something to counter the yearning that worsens with every exhalation.
As she walks towards the sea
Suddenly, in the squinting distance, beyond the endless corrugations of sand, she thinks she can see its shimmer.
These opening and closing sections have a freedom that the rest of the book doesn’t. Bray works hard and dutifully at constructing the lives of the other children, but the effects of the catastrophic event that is the death of Issy are strangely muted. Even though we’re told how devastated they are, the narrative is more preoccupied with Zippy’s attraction to one of the Mormon boys and Al’s longing to be a normal football-playing boy rather than a sober acolyte. At times, I felt as if I were reading a young adult novel. And Ian is entirely defined by his view that all is ordained by the Lord and the family must simply persevere in faith. There is no visceral feeling of the agony that a father must be going through when he loses a four-year-old. We accept that he feels it, but the only intimation of it is in the immense weariness with which he goes doggedly about his everyday duties. This straitjacketing of the emotions by a rigid faith is part of Bray’s point, but it’s a problem for the dynamics of the book. Ian is the fulcrum around which the lives of all the others turn, and he has nothing to offer them but biblical platitudes; so the energy is sucked out of their interactions and there’s a stasis at the heart of the book. Some energy comes in as he is forced by Claire’s depression to come closer to his children, particularly in his relationship with his youngest child Jacob, but Ian remains a childlike and helpless figure. The ending suggests some consolation, and some hope. I found it hard to see, though, what that hope amounts to, other than the willingness of Claire to go on sacrificing herself.
There’s much that’s interesting and moving in the book, and for many that will be enough. For me it wasn’t.
This is the second of the books shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize that we’ve reviewed. (Elizabeth Is Missing was the other). In coming weeks we’ll review the winner, Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days.
Carys Bray: A Song For Issy Bradley (Hutchinson 2014).