The Translation of the Bones

By Francesca Kay

(Scribner, $24, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Francesca Kay, an author who lives in England, has an interesting background. She grew up in Southeast Asia and India and also has lived in Jamaica, the United States and Germany. She won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, a British honor, for her debut novel, “An Equal Stillness.” She sets “The Translation of the Bones” in Battersea, outside London, and its publication here marks her American debut as a novelist.

 What is this book about?

It’s about religion and faith (not necessarily the same thing), love and longing (about which the same can be said), the bonds that tie mothers and children and the deep human need for connection.

The novel is peopled largely by troubled women, and also by a priest who needs to refresh his beliefs. Among them are Mary-Margaret, an awkward and simple soul  who believes she has witnessed a miracle at the church; her once-beautiful but now grossly overweight and unhappy mother, Fidelma, with whom she lives; unhappily married Stella, who dotes on her 10-year-old son; and Alice, who longs for her son to return safely from Afghanistan. As Easter approaches, Mary-Margaret waits for a sign from above that she has been given a special mission, and what she does to carry it out will affect all of them.

Why you’ll like it:

The story is rich with characters that Kay makes sympathetic even though they are flawed – and therefore come across as very real. And she uses them to explore the complex intricacies of faith.

Kay told an interviewer that the wish to understand faith inspired her novel:

“…I did want to look at the distance we have traveled, from a time when religious belief was culturally normal to where we are today. Sometimes it seems that we have forgotten the middle ground, where there was complexity and metaphor and room for shades of meaning, and given in to literalism, to fundamentalism, of both the believing and the atheist sort. But even more interesting than faith in modern times, is the timeless relationship of the human to the divine. My novel is not so much about faith in the abstract, as about the different ways in which individuals believe –- or don’t believe —  and therefore how they relate to this world -– a world of interconnected beings -– and to a world beyond.

“The book is not a manifesto, a religious tract or a polemic, and the forms of faith that it explores are not necessarily mine. For my own part, I’d echo the man in Mark’s gospel who said: ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’

“I think true faith is a gift to envy, for the certainty and consolation it provides.”

What others are saying:

“The Translation of the Bones is a well-tempered exploration of the haphazard, the religious and the mad…in beautifully musical sentences,” says The Daily Telegraph.

“If Francesca Kay’s second novel were a piece of music, it would be a requiem, finding the poetry, perhaps even the glory, in loss and despair. Which is not to say that her novel is depressing or gloomy – far from it. In its depiction of a community grappling with the pain of what it means to be human, it is a novel which manages to be both poignant and uplifting….You don’t have to be religious to be moved by Kay’s elegantly calibrated writing,” says The Telegraph.

“What begins as the small mystery of one woman’s vision (or delusion) explodes into a deeper story about how people cope with grief and loss,” says The Washington Post.

“By imbuing these troubled souls with transcendent innocence and memorable backstories, Kay brings depth to characters that could easily become stereotypes, all while spinning an extraordinary plot,” says Publishers Weekly.

When is it available?

It’s at the Hartford Public Library now.

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