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A Song for Issy Bradley

Rebecca Foster

Carys Bray
Hutchinson, 416 pp

Where I grew up, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., any trip on the Beltway had us pass the Mormon Temple in Kensington. This giant structure, gleaming white and gold and topped by an 18-foot statue of the angel Moroni, is visible for miles around. I remember being intrigued by it, wondering how it differed from our own Protestant church and what might happen there. My sister even had a Mormon friend, but we were none the wiser; what goes on in Temple is a secret that outsiders never learn.

Little wonder, then, that stereotypes and misconceptions abound about Mormonism. When Mitt Romney was running for president in 2012, there were jokes about multiple spouses and special undergarments. Jon Krakauer's non-fiction study, Under the Banner of Heaven, and West End hit The Book of Mormon have, arguably, helped to dispel some of the shadows, but whether they fairly illuminate Mormonism is another matter.

Carys Bray, on the other hand, can offer a genuine insider's view: She was raised a devout Mormon but left the faith in her early thirties when, as a wife and mother of four, she realised she could not rationalise their beliefs to her children. There is certainly an autobiographical element to her Costa Prize-shortlisted debut, A Song for Issy Bradley, in which the death of a daughter casts a pious Mormon family into the depths of grief and doubt. Bray's second child, Libby, died at a few days old of an undiagnosed genetic condition.

'The house is full of sadness. It's packed into every crevice and corner like snow' since four-year-old Issy's sudden death from meningitis. Yet it was not always thus. Until the morning when the novel's action opens, this was a happy, functional family. Dad Ian dubbed their Southport home 'The Place', so that every time they entered the driveway he could jubilantly quote Brigham Young's words upon sighting Utah's Salt Lake, 'This is the place.'

The novel shifts masterfully between the close third-person perspectives of each member of the family: Ian, a maths teacher and bishop in their church, mum Claire, teenage daughter Zippy (Zipporah), and sons Al and Jacob. On the morning in question, Claire is preparing for Jacob's seventh birthday party. She is irked when Ian, as usual, prioritises church business over his family - Brother Anderson is ill and needs someone to drive him to hospital. Little does Ian know he will be back there later this evening to pray at Issy's deathbed. Claire thinks she will never forgive herself for going shopping and heating up sausage rolls while Issy lay dying.

Unlike the others, Claire is a convert, having grown up with a single mum and slept around before she met Ian. In the back of her mind she still questions Mormon doctrines; 'Ian believes the good things are heaven-sent and the bad are arbitrary. [Claire] isn't sure what she believes any more.' When Issy dies, Claire takes to sleeping in her daughter's bunk, all night and then all day as well. As in the late Sue Townsend's The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year, Claire takes a sort of sabbatical from life, leaving Ian to raise their remaining three children single-handedly.

Al, 14, is a football fanatic and your average cheeky teenager. He silently mocks Brother Rimmer's crackpot stories about the end times and the Nephilites helping him change a tire by the roadside - yet ends up with his own Nephilite yarn, after three wisecracking old gents rescue him from some park bullies. Al recognises that quite often belief does not make sense: 'He isn't sure whether faith is brave or stupid; sometimes they go together.' Meanwhile, Zippy, struggling with the goal of chastity, has a huge crush on President Carmichael's son, Adam - who, like Al, is unconvinced that he wants to go on his expected rite-of-passage mission at all.

Jacob's perspective is pricelessly simple: He 'knows that his faith is bigger than a mustard seed; it's as least as big as a toffee bonbon, maybe bigger.' He decides to try resurrecting dead things - beetles, spiders, a blackbird he and Issy buried - reasoning that if he succeeds with these he might be able to bring Issy back, too. He even prays for their dead goldfish to come back to life, and thinks his petition succeeds - except it is actually a new fish Ian bought at the pet store on his lunch break. By interspersing such moments of humour, Bray makes this achingly sad situation bearable.

It would be easy to paint Ian as the villain of the novel, so absorbed in well doing that he is oblivious to his family's needs. Al expresses his father's unstinting religiousness perfectly: 'It's as if Dad lives in the overlapping bit of one of those Venn diagrams, straddling both worlds. Other people…act normal in real life and accessorize their Sunday clothes with holy words and best manners, but Dad is unchanging. He exists in a perfect egg of divine assurance.' Yet Bray shows that beneath his piety, Ian is deeply hurt by Issy's death; he is confused as to why his healing prayers and anointing oil failed, and he unwillingly turns to deception to mask Claire's depression.

Like Jenn Ashworth's The Friday Gospels, Issy Bradley is a privileged inside look at the relatively small (180,000-strong) subgroup of British Mormons. It is a touching and necessary story about the difference faith can and cannot make - positing the little resurrections found in the midst of despair. The Bradleys are buffeted by sorrow, but survive. As Claire realises, 'When you get up in the morning even though you'd rather be dead, that's brave… Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to keep going.'