A Mormon Grief Observed: Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley

I just became aware of a new literary novel about Mormons, Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley. The debut novel was published in the United Kingdom by Hutchinson (June 19), and will be published by Ballantine Books in the United States (August 12). Bray, who is British (from Southport, Merseyside), grew up as a member of the Church, but is no longer a member. Her main previous publication is a short story collection, Sweet Home(Salt, 2012), which won the Scott Prize. ‘Scaling Never’, an excerpt (or early version) of the novel appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Dialogue.

The British reviews of the novel have been very strong.

Daily Express: 5 stars. “Suburban Mormon life and an eccentric cast of characters bring humour and eccentricity into a portrait of a loving family de-railed by grief. At the heart of Carys Bray’s affecting and singular first novel is the death of a child. Issy Bradley is only four when she dies suddenly from meningitis. Her father Ian is a maths teacher and recently elected Mormon bishop in a small town on the Lancashire coast. His long-suffering, good-natured wife Claire is devoted to him and their four children. Married at 18, she has adapted to the chaos of family life but is less sure about the strictures of the Book of Mormon, having only converted so that she could marry Ian.  However Issy, her fourth and unplanned child, had been a prayer answered. “One last time,” she agreed in a compromised covenant with Ian and God, “but I want a girl.” And along came Issy, “her lovely make-the-most-of-it-all child”.  The shock of Issy’s death paralyses her with grief and she retreats to Issy’s bunk bed, waiting for a celestial sign that her life has not been in vain. Ian is left juggling the needs of his demanding congregation with those of his children and, for the first time in his devout life, fears that his religion may not have all the answers. Issy’s death has provoked an identity crisis in each of them. For all of their father’s teaching of the Mormon rules of prayer and obedience, promising eventual entry to the Celestial Kingdom where they will be reunited with Issy, the words bring no consolation. Feeling seriously derailed, 14-year-old Al, the football-mad family cynic, “borrows” his mother’s savings and sets off a chain of disasters and eldest daughter Zippy falls in love for the first time. Neither of them is able to articulate their heartache at the loss of their sister and the splintering of the family. It is only seven-year-old Jacob, still innocently steeped in fairy tales, faith and his belief in miracles, who decides to try to bring his little sister back by performing one. Bray was raised in the Mormon faith, although she has now left, and performs a small miracle of her own by inhabiting each family member at every stage of the tragedy as their doubts and fears creep in. Her astutely observed rituals of suburban Mormon life and the eccentric characters who make up Ian’s congregation are an eye-popping portrait of the comfort and dangers of an insular community. Yet she manages it with an astonishing lightness of touch and real humour woven into the sadness.  Ian realises that he needs to find a way back to Claire before it is too late but it is the separate journeys of the Bradley children that shape and define the story. Through the fog of their unhappiness, Al and Zippy discover tiny miracles on their own doorstep; Al’s through an unlikely friendship with an elderly Mormon parishioner and Zippy through her honesty with the boy she loves. However it is Jacob, unwavering in his belief that he can repair his broken family, who points the way forward. “I know something about being good,” he says, when Claire goes missing. “If you’re good and you get lost, someone you love comes and finds you.” A stunning, unmissable debut.”

The Guardian: “In some ways the Bradleys are ordinary, if perhaps poorer than most: they shop at Asda and Primark, eat chicken nuggets and cannot afford double-glazing. In other ways they could not be more different from the materialistic western world, because the Bradleys are Mormons and belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Their religion, a religion Bray herself was apparently raised in and devoted herself to until her early 30s, places extraordinary demands upon them, demands that mean: Ian is not at home on his seven-year-old son’s birthday; Claire is so busy preparing for and supervising the party that she fails to detect that her youngest daughter is seriously ill; and, when Issy dies, a slide show of her life is not allowed to be shown at the funeral, her grandparents do not attend and her mother has to fight for the right to have the coffin stay in the living room rather than the mortuary prior to burial. The novel’s subject is faith and the Bradleys’ faith is subjected through the course of it to a trial from which even Ian – staunch believer that everything is ultimately as it should be – emerges shaken. Bray slips with thoroughness, imagination and dexterity into each of the characters’ consciousness, dramatising their struggle to accept religion’s contorted justifications for why the unthinkable has happened. The book portrays radical religion through the eyes, not of a convert, but the profoundly disillusioned. Bray is wincingly honest and emotions are portrayed with an assurance that comes from understanding: Claire is hoarding 10 pounds a week from the housekeeping money without knowing why; her desire to weep in gratitude as cars pull over during the ambulance ride to the hospital with Issy, wanting not to tell her unconscious daughter stories as she sits in the intensive care unit but memorise every detail of her; Zippy’s conviction that her sister’s body is completely devoid of “Issy-ness” upon seeing it in the mortuary – all these ring true and make for arresting reading.  The novel is not devoid of humour, either; there are some wonderful one-liners: “the eternal consequences of football-related immorality”; “porn is everywhere, online and in the Next catalogue”; “the dangers of the dark”, “hazard of the horizontal” and “perils of privacy”; those “naughty ‘B’s: never show … breast, back, bottom or belly”. Perhaps Bray’s greatest gift, however, is understatement, demonstrated when Claire, in the final scene, clad in her nightie and stranded on an island of sand, is described as “so very lost”, or when Jacob attempts to remind his father – who even as he is deciding what should be on his daughter’s tombstone is also thinking how he can give a testament of faith to the grieving mourners – of the presence of his family by tapping his arm and saying: “We’re sad, Dad.” A Song for Issy Bradley is a skilful and empathetic dramatisation. The fact that it deals with such distressing subject matter without falling prey to sentimentality makes it all the more admirable.”

The Independent: “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 . . . 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.”

“I loved A Song for Issy Bradley. It’s wry, smart . . . moving and comforting. . . . A terrific book [about] faith, and what happens to that faith when the unimaginable happens.”Nick Hornby

Bray’s bio on the Salt website reads, “Carys was born in Southport in 1975 and has lived in Utah, Exeter and Bournemouth. The daughter of devout Mormon parents, Carys developed an early love of fantastical stories and a fascination with angels, gold plates and lost civilisations. Although she dispensed with the Mormon sensibility, her interest in stories proved to be enduring and she has spent huge chunks of her life with her nose in a book. In fact, if it was at all possible, she’d probably insert her whole self between the pages like Woody Allen’s Sidney Kugelmass. Carys always dreamed of being a writer but at some point during a sleep-deprived, toddler-filled decade she forgot, or she lost her nerve – it’s all a bit of a fog. In 2009 she achieved a BA in Literature from The Open University and in 2010 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. She went on to win the MA category of the 2010 Edge Hill Prize and since then she has had stories published in a variety of literary magazines, in print and on the web, including Mslexia, Black Market Review, The View From Here, The Yellow Room, PoemMemoirStory and Dialogue. Her work was brought to life at the 2012 Latitude Festival by innovative story performers, WordTheatre. Carys won the 2012 Ether Books Best Writer Award. She co-edits Paraxis, an online short story publication and she is working on her first novel and a PhD. She lives in Southport with her husband and four children.”

The Guardian published a piece about Bray’s history with Mormonism. Bray has expressed trepidation about writing and talking about Mormonism.

June 2014 blog post, “Heart in Boots”: “I’m nervous about reviews and nervous about interviews on live radio, but most of all, I’m nervous about the features that various journalists are writing about me – features that will, inevitably, concentrate on my Mormon upbringing. As a writer I choose my words carefully. On the few occasions I have written about Mormonism I have edited and revised my words, attempting to take a nuanced position that is, at times, both critical and conciliatory. It is absolutely terrifying to know that, on this occasion, my words will be chopped up and reassembled by people who understand nothing of those nuances; that when I’m asked about the good and bad things about growing up Mormon, or parenting as a Mormon, or the role of Mormon women, the good things may be omitted from the final piece, and that a sub editor, not the journalist who interviewed me, will write the headline, making it as melodramatic as possible. Just rereading this paragraph makes me feel nauseous. . . . My heart sank into my boots when I saw the headline of an interview in the Guardian yesterday [Why I rejected life as a Mormon mother] . . . I find it very difficult to talk about the church in interviews because there is tremendous nuance in how Mormons approach so many issues, and that nuance isn’t going to be picked up by non-Mormons (or by sub-editors at newspapers who write melodramatic headlines). Ultimately, I can only talk about my own experiences, which haven’t always been positive –  but I know lots of fantastic women, including my own mother, who have found fulfilment and enjoyment in the church.”

2012 blog post. “Mormons sometimes say that people can ‘leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone.’ This aphorism is an attempt to silence those who leave, and for many of us it works: we don’t want to upset or embarrass our family and friends by saying anything about our Mormon experience which could be construed as ‘negative’ or ‘apostate’. Trying not to talk about Mormonism when you’ve been raised in it can be a little tricky (although it’s something I’ve managed pretty well, to date). But trying not to write about it has been a bit like trying amputate one of one of my limbs with a toothpick; painful and ultimately impossible. Mormon fiction is frequently ‘blindly affirmative’ and ‘essentially devoid of genuine conflict’ (Eugene England). Perhaps this is because some Mormons perceive the creation and depiction of flawed Mormon characters to be an act of aggression; a symptom of apostasy and the desire to be ‘negative’ – a cardinal sin in a religion in which happiness and positivity are so frequently equated with righteousness. But without conflict and flawed characters, there are no stories. Levi Peterson maintains; ‘Literature should reflect life. Ultimately, it should reflect all of life.  Nothing that people feel, nothing that they do, should be denied a place in literature.’ . . . It wasn’t daring of me to separate myself from Mormonism – leaving became essential – but, having been raised in a culture which demands the silence of those who leave, it’s taken some daring for me to begin to write about it.”

Reviews of the short story collection Sweet Home:

Sweet Home Sabotage review. “Parents (mostly mothers) and parenting crop up with reassuring, predictable frequency, but that’s hardly surprising considering the title, Sweet Home, and the emphasis on domestic settings. These are stories of families, highlights and lowlights of childhoods that will later become part of a patchwork fabric of remembered early life . . . Like the best fairy tales, Bray’s Sweet Home stories have a dark undercurrent that’s occasionally exposed. This is a writer who understands people, mothers especially, and how their early memories shape the fabric of their later lives.”

The Lancashire Writing Hub Review: “It is the most human, beautifully-brutally frank and moving collection of short stories I have read in a very long time. Centred around family relationships, it is the antidote to all that is cheesily portrayed as family life . . . There are moments when you long for a breather. The stories are incredibly rich with feelings that cut to the heart. There is little let up. Few stories let you off the hook for a moment. A bit like parenthood, perhaps? . . . The stories in Sweet Home work like beads on a thread, each reflecting on those around it, but each with its own distinct texture and lustre. Nothing is sugar coated. It is honest and unguarded – so far from what mummy-centric websites and smug washing powder adverts would have you believe, I feel safe and reassured by all that stark reality. Sweet Home is alive, beautiful and painfully true.”

The release of this novel comes after two literary novels about Mormons by ex-Mormons in 2013, American author Ryan McIlvain’s Elders and British author Jenn Ashworth’s The Friday Gospels.

I am sorry my Month in Review has been late in coming, I hope to post it later this week.

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One Response to A Mormon Grief Observed: Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley

  1. Th. says:

    .

    She sounds like someone I would be willing to read, based on those blog excerpts.

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