Early in Carys Bray’s debut novel ,the Bradley family suffer a tragedy and what follows is a gradual unravelling of life as they understand it.
The Bradleys are Mormons. Father, Ian, is a bishop and has an unwavering belief in the creed of the Church. Claire, his wife, wasn’t born a Mormon , we discover that she met Ian whilst at university and converted to marry him. In grief she begins to question the way of life she has adopted whist Ian is convinced his faith can carry the family through the crisis.
Alma, their eldest son and known at school as Al, dislikes being different. He is embarrassed by his family and desperate to conform and properly belong to the football team. He trains with them but his father refuses to pay the FA registration so he can’t play in matches. At the beginning of the novel he is detailed to welcome guests to the birthday party for his little brother :
‘ It always feels weird when ordinary people come round ; the picture of Jesus in the hall seems to double in size and Al feels like an outsider, someone who has grown up in the country of the house without managing to learn its language. A few of the kids’ mums offer to stay and help but he says, ‘No thanks”. A house full of non-member women expecting forbidden cups of tea would make Mum even more pissy.’
Jacob, the youngest son, is determined to bring about a miracle to make the family well again.His Church teaches him that this is possible and his belief is strengthened by the ‘resurrection’ of his goldfish – in fact a replacement was bought as nobody realised Jacob had noticed the goldfish was dead. Jacob’s zealous pursuit of the miracle ironically serves to highlight the family’s plight as his behaviour increasingly causes concern at school.
It was the character of Zippy, the eldest daughter, that I found the most endearing. She is trapped in a belief system that can see nothing more for her than marriage. Whilst her family falls apart she is trying to negotiate the tricky teenaged path of sex, love and identity and finding that the Church does not really provide her with answers.
‘ Girls who choose to be modest choose to be respected. If you check your clothes everyday before you go out you will never be walking pornography. I’m sure none of you want to be responsible for putting bad thoughts into men’s heads. Please think about the men, ‘ Sister Campbell said.
So Zippy did. She thought about the men; with Adam’s thigh pressed up against hers and his warm fingers rubbing her arm it was hard to think of anything else.’
All this may sound more than a touch cheerless but there is humour here too. Sent to help ‘Brother Rimmer’ an elderly member of the Church, Alma is treated to the story of how the three Nephrites, figures from the Book of Mormon, possibly helped his wife change a flat tyre on the side of the M58 :
Alma shrugs. He can’t believe Brother Rimmer thinks three ancient, undead Americans changed Sister Rimmer’s tyre – he may as well credit the three little pigs.
‘The three Nephite’s . First thing we thought of. Can’t say for sure , of course. But that’s what we reckoned – our very own miracle. Sister Rimmer told everyone in Testimony Meeting. She was right proud.’ Brother Rimmer swivels back to the computer screen and minimises the page. ‘It’s a comfort isn’t it? To know the Lord’s looking out for you. He’s a personal God and no problem’s too small to turn over to him.’
Nor is this a voyeuristic look at Mormon life. Bray was born a Mormon but gradually left the Church as an adult. The book is an examination of the nature of faith and how it can act as a barrier between us and the ones we love. The rigid set of beliefs imposed by the Church only serve to make the family feel more isolated and vulnerable as things deteriorate. Ian refuses to seek help from outside even as catastrophe again seeks to overwhelm them.
This is a powerful story told from the different points of view of each member of the family. An ideal book for a bookgroup discussion. Highly recommended.
A Song For Issy Bradley is published by Hutchinson on 19th June. Many thanks to them for the review copy.