There are no words. That is what is written in Claire’s journal after her young daughter Issy dies from meningitis. And there really are no words to describe reading her death, and the excruciating nature of this experience for characters Claire, her husband Ian – a Mormon bishop – and their children Zippy, Alma and Jacob.
The first half of this book is exact in exploring the profound trauma of grief. That this grief comes from the death of a small person really takes your breath away. It is every parent’s worst nightmare that their child – not yet fully grown and full of potential – could not just be sick, but dying, before ever reaching his or her human potential. Bray captures this exquisite pain and explores it from all angles with grace and, believe it or not, humour. The point of difference here is that this family is a conservative Mormon one, and Ian, the father, is a bishop in the Mormon Church.
Claire is Issy’s mother. She is a latecomer to the Mormon Church, after meeting and falling in love with Ian whilst at University. This ‘outsider’ status was a relief for me, as a non-religious reader. All other characters in the book grow up in the Mormon Church, and I would have found it harder to understand the absolute pervasiveness of religion in the story without Claire and her life before becoming ‘Sister Bradley’. After Issy dies, Claire emotionally checks out and takes to Issy’s bunk bed for the foreseeable future. Claire’s physical protest at the death of her youngest daughter feels real – like a challenge to a god that seems to have very little discretion when it comes to pain, suffering and death. Whilst the other family members struggle in different ways, none of them question God as Claire does, with a refusal to continue with life post-Issy.
Of course all family members struggle, and it is the surviving three children and Ian who try to get on with life as they experience this profound grief. Alma just wants to play football, but is haunted by images of his youngest sister fetching the ball. Jacob believes so hard in God that he is determined to resurrect Issy and make everything all right again. Zippy is the responsible, teenage sister who is expected to cook all the meals when Claire emotionally falls apart and takes to Issy’s bed permanently. Some of the humour comes from the depictions of expectations of teenage girls in the Mormon church, although these are somewhat tragicomic: Zippy in her mother’s wedding dress at a Mormon fashion show, where all teenage girls are wearing relation’s wedding dresses, and promising chastity at a time when hormones are obviously all over the show. And then there is Ian, the most fundamental believer of them all. Every action and decision taken by Ian comes from a place of God – a Mormon God – as he too struggles with Issy’s death.
Ian would be an easy character to dislike. Early in the book he provides religious reasoning for everything that is happening and seems very sure that Issy’s death is as it is meant to be. His life’s soundtrack is provided by the Tabernacle Choir, a touchstone of peace and reassurance in his Mormon life. However, Bray counters his religious beliefs with enough perplexed humanity for the reader to understand that he is as lost as Claire, but is trying to manage it as best he can through the filter of his belief in God.
It is obvious that Carys Bray has a personal understanding of growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family. Bray’s experiences both shape and care for this work as she poses questions about the Church and the place of organised religion in children’s lives. These are explored in a sympathetic way, especially through her characters and their personal struggles in the face of indescribable grief and pain.
For a situation in which there could be no words, Bray seems to have found the right ones.
A Song for Issy Bradley
by Carys Bray
Published by Hutchinson