'A Song for Issy Bradley' by Carys Bray. As usual I read about this on a blog very recently and now cannot remember where. I am not sure I would have requested it if I had realised it was about a Mormon family, but once I had read the first chapter I already wanted to persevere with it. It is not that I have anything against Mormons in particular, just that books about 'faith' do not really interest me. This book gave me a fascinating insight into a world that is utterly outside my knowledge, and, although the author is a 'lapsed' Mormon (if there is such a thing), I felt it was a very open and honest picture of their beliefs. The thing with the Mormon religion seems to be is that it is not so much an overarching code but more a rulebook that governs every single aspect of how you live your life. Maybe it's just my interpretation of the way it is presented, but it seems mostly to be a list of things that you cannot do. The story is, however, just as much about a family struggling with grief.
Claire is an incomer, having met her husband Ian at university and been converted then married into the faith. Their four children, Zippy, Al, Jacob and Issy have been raised within the Mormon church and their father has recently become a 'bishop', which seems to be kind of pastor, someone who offers both spiritual and practical guidance for the congregation. So on the day of Jacob's birthday party he is whisked away on urgent business to visit the sick and Claire is left to cope with all of Jacob's excited expectations, and the stressful experience of having strange children in the house. Issy, feeling unwell, is dosed up with Calpol and left in bed to sleep it off. When they finally realise how sick she is, it is too late. The story moves between each person in the family, watching as they struggle to make sense of their loss, while also dealing with their own private concerns.
While his rule book props up Ian and gives him a way to handle everything that life has dealt, it gives him no mechanism to support Claire, who refuses to grieve in the proper manner. The older children bottle up their feelings, absorbed as they are partly with other concerns; Zippy (Zipporah) with a crush on a fellow church member, and Al (Alma) with his football. Jacob however has other plans, and he begins an experiment to test the power of his faith. This is the part of the story I found so heartbreaking, not the death of a child. If you bring up a child to believe that prayer and faith will be answered if it is strong enough how is he supposed to understand when it does not work. The children in the story were all so well drawn, struggling to balance the demands of their religion with what they see and experience in the real world. Claire collapses into herself and hides from the world, in a very graphic portrayal of grief. But Ian I hated, for the entire book. His narrow dogmatism was, to me, everything that is bad about organised religion. His hypocrisy is just predictable. His wife is handling it all wrong; you should not be sad for someone who has gone to heaven, nor mourn over the body that is left behind, and he lies to cover up her failure. The scene where he rapes his catatonic wife on their daughter's bed was the most disgusting thing I have ever read a character doing. He does not redeem himself in the end, in my eyes; he steps outside his box for a tiny moment, because he realises it is the only way to draw his wife back inside.
I will leave you with a lighter moment that I laughed at, in fact I giggled aloud at several points in the book where the author seemed by be gently mocking her lost religion. Here Zippy has 'snuck out' to a party, and is offered something to drink:
" 'No thanks,' she says.
'Oh, yeah. You're Muslim, aren't you?'
'Mormon,' she mutters.
Will's wearing a cardigan and big glasses that he probably doesn't need. At least he's talking to her, even though she'd rather not talk about religion because whenever she has to stick up for the Church the words come out wrong. Dad makes it all sound sensible and logical, yet when she borrows his language and ideas, it always sounds absurd.
'Oh, right, A Mormon,' he says. 'You shouldn't be at a party, should you? It's not allowed, is it?'
'Sorry, I must've got mixed up.'
'I think it's Jehovah's Witnesses, the no-parties thing.' Zippy's face grows hot under its glaze of make-up. She's embarrassed to have been mistaken for a Jehovah's Witness. Dad says they don't let people have blood transfusions and they believe only a few people can get to heaven. She doesn't know much about them, but they sound weird and she doesn't want anyone to imagine that she's got anything to do with them." (p.208)
Ignoring that I found the subject matter a little outside my comfort zone this was a lovely book, beautifully written, and honestly portraying the good and bad sides of family, faith and religious community. I liked the way she gave them miracles and answered prayers without making it seem significant. While I can see that having a guiding message would help you through such an experience, when it tells you what you are supposed to be feeling it has crossed a line. Even though it ends hopefully for them as a family I was left feeling somewhat ambivalent.