Thursday, 19 June 2014

A Review: A Song For Issy Bradley

This book may challenge the way you think about faith. It will also make you laugh and cry - I promise.

Carys Bray's novel A Song For Issy Bradley is the story of a British Mormon family in the aftermath of the death of the youngest child, Issy.

The story is about how each of them journey through grief. The narrative switches between characters; Issy's parents, Claire and Ian, and her siblings, Alma, Zipporah and Jacob, take turns unfolding the family's story. Every character sees things in a different way. Every voice matters. For Claire it is a paralysing experience that sends her into catatonic shock; a passive rebellion against faith. For the youngest family member, Jacob, negotiating the familiar (if amplified) confusion of stories we're told as children; God, Father Christmas, spirit beings and the tooth fairy, his response is to hatch a plan to resurrect Issy.

However, this isn't a novel all about death. It is a book about family; the dynamics, struggles and joys of being part of one. It is also about the challenge to make sense of the things that can, and do, happen to us all. Bray has this incredible knack of seeing the details that count. You smile at the familiar moments; Ian's desperation to be the figurehead, holding everything together, Teenage daughter Zippy's first love and the fantasies of what it is to be grown up, Alma's rebellion against the family obligations that take him away from his football.

The multiple viewpoint structure is the perfect way to tell their story. I don't always think it is helpful to compare books to other books... but I can't help mentioning that it reminded me strongly of The Poisonwood Bible in the sense that it takes an incredibly accomplished writer, like Kingsolver, like Bray, to handle a range of divergent voices so exactingly. You can open any page, read a line of text and know with absolute certainty whose narrative you are in, purely because of the voice. This brilliant handling allows the reader to get beneath the skin of the characters and feel what they feel acutely. You will probably grapple over who is your favourite character. They are superbly drawn and I'm fond of them all for different reasons. I feel like I might bump into Jacob at the penny arcade at the end of Southport pier, or Zippy trying lip glosses in Beales. I would recognise each of them anywhere.

It could have been tempting for Bray, who was brought up in a Mormon family, before leaving in her thirties, to have made this novel a vehicle to ridicule the Mormon church and faith. A less skilled writer may have gone that way, as a cheap trick. What is going on here is far more nuanced. Bray presents aspects of the faith that may make us feel queasily outraged - particularly the treatment of women, the teaching of sex and sexuality and the legalistic doctrine. But Bray is even-handed and also depicts details of Mormonism with great dignity and gentle affection; the kindness and support shown from the community, the culture around sharing food and eating. It is funny. It is life affirming. There is the reality of a living faith in characters like Brother Rimmer. There is measure and balance sustained through to the last page. There is shade and subtlety to the writing that I admire hugely.

This is a beautifully written novel. Tender without being mawkish; real, sincere, brutal and also uplifting. An incredible debut.

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