A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (August 12, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
Faith, guilt, family responsibilities and cultural norms overlap and clash in Carys Bray’s debut novel. A Song for Issy Bradley explores the effects of the sudden death of its youngest member on a Mormon family living on the English coast.
As a convert to the Mormon church, Claire Bradley has often found life as a bishop’s wife challenging, but when four-year-old Issy is suddenly and fatally stricken with meningitis, she no longer has any strength for, or interest in, the struggle. The child could not be saved by her father’s blessing, and Claire retreats to blame herself and her weak faith for that, doubling the loss to the rest of the family. Rather than providing the comfort they might have expected, their beliefs complicate the responses of both Claire and her husband Ian to the death of their youngest; Bray’s depiction of Claire’s grief is particularly stark and affecting.
Meanwhile, the older Bradley children, Zipporah and Al, are adrift and resentful of the expectations that their community and their father have placed on them in the wake of the family’s loss, and their younger brother Jacob, with a seven-year-old’s understanding of his church’s teachings, is intent on making a miracle happen to set things right for his family.
The family’s Mormon identity is central to A Song For Issy Bradley. Bray’s portrayal of a community practicing this American-born faith in England offers a fresh and particular perspective on it. At the same time, her rendering of a family finding its way through grief strikes a universal, and sympathetic, chord.
The Bradleys see the world as a place where miracles are possible, and where nothing is more important than family. This is their story.
It is the story of Ian Bradley—husband, father, math teacher, and Mormon bishop—and his unshakable belief that everything will turn out all right if he can only endure to the end, like the pioneers did. It is the story of his wife, Claire, her lonely wait for a sign from God, and her desperate need for life to pause while she comes to terms with tragedy.
And it is the story of their children: sixteen-year-old Zippy, experiencing the throes of first love; cynical fourteen-year-old Al, who would rather play soccer than read the Book of Mormon; and seven-year-old Jacob, whose faith is bigger than a mustard seed—probably bigger than a toffee candy, he thinks—and which he’s planning to use to mend his broken family with a miracle.
Intensely moving, unexpectedly funny, and deeply observed, A Song for Issy Bradley explores the outer reaches of doubt and faith, and of a family trying to figure out how to carry on when the innermost workings of their world have broken apart.
“Claire dreams she is walking along a beach with the Lord. She cannot humble herself and speak nicely so they progress in silence. The sand is hard and damp, puddled in places; its ripples bump her bare feet. They walk until He stops and presses a gentle hand to her arm.
“‘Please come back. I love you.’
“The words whisper along the tiny hairs of Claire’s inner ear. Did someone sneak into the bedroom, touch her arm and murmur I love you? She lies as still as she can, in case someone is there, hoping to talk to her. If they think she is asleep they will go away and leave her alone.”