A Song For Issy Bradley

By Carys Bray

(Ballantine, $26, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

This is the first novel from Carys Bray, a lapsed Mormon who lives in Southport, England. But it is not her first published work to win critical praise: her debut story collection, “Sweet Home,” won the Scott Prize and she also has won an Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story.

What is this book about?                   

How does any family cope with the death of a small child? For the Bradley family, despite their Mormon faith that had heretofore defined their lives, coping does not go well. Issy is only four when she dies of meningitis, and her parents and siblings react in different ways. Issy’s mother, Claire, a convert to Mormonism, retreats into herself and into Issy’s bed, wishing for a sign from God to explain things. Her father, a math teacher and Mormon bishop, is full of platitudes and unwarranted optimism about the power of faith. Her siblings, Zippy, Al (short for Alma, an odd name for a boy) and Jacob, are struggling, respectively, with first love and lust; a rejection of Dad’s bromides and piety and the wish to make things right with through a miracle ( Jacob thinks if he can resurrect his dead goldfish, he can bring Issy back).

Why you’ll like it:

This is a  story of a family in crisis and the power —  and also the limits — of hope, faith and love, and it is  one of those novels that can make you cry, and then laugh, and then maybe cry some more. Bray has an impressive grasp of family dynamics and how they work – or fail to work – during devastating troubles. Never sentimental or treacle-y, it is nevertheless a touching story of how people, made real by this talented author, deal with a situation none of them can properly apprehend.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “When 4-year-old Issy dies of meningitis, her Mormon family struggles with sadness, doubt and faith. The Bradleys—Ian, Claire, Zippy, Alma, Jacob and Issy—don’t live in Salt Lake City but rather in an English town where Ian is constantly on call as bishop to a small flock of Latter-day Saints. He misses Jacob’s seventh birthday party, leaving Claire so stretched she doesn’t notice Issy’s fever is more than a regular cold. The little girl’s death sends her family reeling; rather than bringing them closer, it fractures them, especially once Claire retreats to Issy’s bed and won’t get up. Ian believes in telling the truth at all times, but what kind of example would he be setting if people knew he couldn’t solve his own family’s problems? So he begins covering for Claire when people ask about her, shocking his children. Zippy is sure of her own rectitude until she discovers the pleasure of kissing the boy she’s long wanted to marry; will he now see her as tarnished goods? Alma is a boy who’d rather be called Al, thank you very much, and he’s the requisite doubter among the children; what good is religion if it makes his father force him off the soccer team? Young Jacob believes so fervently in the power of prayer that he sets about trying to resurrect Issy, practicing first on bugs, spiders and a goldfish. Each chapter follows a different Bradley, and Bray brings her characters to complicated, messy life with her tremendous power for empathy. It’s rare to see religious faith explored so deeply in popular fiction, and though Ian’s nearly unquestioning devotion can make him seem like the villain at times, Bray does a remarkable job of illuminating each character’s hopes and fears. An absorbing, beautifully written debut novel with surprising moments of humor.”

Says Library Journal: “In British author Bray’s debut novel, Claire and Ian Bradley are part of a Mormon community in England struggling to raise their children—Al, Zippy, Jacob, and Issy—in the ways of the church despite modern influences. Ian is the bishop, on call 24/7, while convert Claire has an unconventional approach to her beliefs but has accepted this restricted life because of her deep love for Ian. Jacob believes he’s seen proof of resurrection when his goldfish comes back to life. Al longs to play football, imagines he’s adopted, and doesn’t believe in miracles, such as a cheesy crisp shaped like Jesus. Zippy frets after a heavy petting session with her boyfriend, only to be given a pamphlet to help her with her guilt. The family’s predictable, ordered life falls apart when tragedy strikes Issy, with a depressed Claire feeling that her faith has failed her and Ian making excuses because he doesn’t want people to think there’s something wrong with his wife. VERDICT With wit and compassion, plus insider knowledge of the Mormon way of life, Bray exposes the raw emotions of a family in crisis. An intriguing and heartbreaking story from an author to watch.

“[Carys] Bray fully inhabits each of her characters, displaying an admirable range of narrative talent rare in a first novel. Fans of The Lonely Polygamist and Where’d You Go, Bernadette will savor this thrilling glimpse behind the scenes of a family in crisis,” says Booklist’s starred review.

The Independent says: “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.”

When is it available?

This novel is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills branch.

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