The reasons we read fiction and what we get out of it are numerous and complex. Two things which crop up over and over when discussing books are a need to try to make sense of our own lives, especially the difficult parts, and the opportunity fiction gives to experience other lives which may be completely different. Powerful debut novel A SONG FOR ISSY BRADLEY by Carys Bray is one of my Summer Reads 2014 and has both qualities in abundance. Its two big themes are Mormonism and dealing with grief – when I invited Carys to join me on the Literary Sofa I couldn’t decide between them but luckily she addresses both in today’s guest post (my mini-review follows):
When I decided to write a novel about the death of a child I knew I wanted to explore doubt, faith and the ways in which belief in God can both help and hinder the grieving process. The decision to write about a Mormon family was a pragmatic one. My parents converted to Mormonism before they married. I’m the oldest of five children and we were brought up in the faith, surrounded by a tight-knit community of fellow-believers. When I left the church in 2009 I started writing, at first avoiding anything religious. But after my short story collection was published I started to think about writing a novel, and as I thought about the themes I wanted to explore I knew I needed religious characters. Rather than research another faith, I decided to write about the one with which I was most familiar.
A Song for Issy Bradley isn’t a novel about people leaving Mormonism. In other words, it’s not my story (my story would make a very boring novel: woman spends several years reading Mormon history and feminist theory, before nervously leaving the church – try pitching that to an agent!). Having left the church, I was interested in the challenge of writing about Mormon characters in a candid but compassionate way.
Mormons believe that missionary work is an obligation. They try to set a good example to non-Mormons by appearing cheerful and friendly; when asked about their ebullience, they are likely to credit The Plan of Happiness, the Mormon narrative that provides the answers to life’s big questions. Mormons tend not to discuss their trials unless they have been overcome. There is a strong emphasis on stoicism and carrying on in the face of adversity. As I wrote A Song for Issy Bradley I knew some of my friends and family may not like to see Mormon characters that are occasionally despondent, grumpy and selfish. I tried to be even-handed and gentle, but I was mindful of that fact that everyone (even Mormons!) behaves badly sometimes and there’s no reason why flawed characters can’t be sympathetic.
A friend who used to be a Jehovah’s Witness told me that she had learned to be kind to her old self; she refused to mock the girl she used to be and the things she used to believe. I remembered her words as I wrote A Song for Issy Bradley, particularly as I wrote the character of Ian Bradley. There’s a lot of my old self in Ian. He dichotomises things – they are either wrong or right, good or evil. He is stubborn, singled-minded and slightly self-righteous; he is desperate for other people to think well of him and as a result he puts their needs before those of his own family. But he’s not a bad man – he’s loyal, dutiful and sincere. As I worked on the novel I struggled to write Ian’s parts because although I understood him, I knew other people might find it difficult to like him.
Occasionally, people who have read A Song for Issy Bradley want to chat to me about the novel. When this happens I always ask what they thought of Ian (so far people have found him sympathetic, if somewhat infuriating). The question they invariably ask me in return is, ‘When you were a Mormon, were you like Ian’s wife, Claire?’ People who know me in real life often go a little further and ask whether I fell to pieces when my own daughter died. The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no. For nearly thirty years I was a stranger to doubt. I was intractable, brimming with certainty, and when my daughter died I was determined to soldier on – the day after she died was a Sunday and I made my husband go to church with me, even though he wanted to stay at home.
When I first left the church I found my past inflexibility embarrassing, but in recent years I’ve started to view it a little more charitably. I now see my determination to carry on as a defensive manoeuvre. I picture my twenty-three year old self, knocked sideways by grief, struggling to her feet before the end of the count: ‘I can take it, I’m up again, I’m fine, I’m fine…’ It’s that same defensiveness which sees Ian Bradley attending church meetings and visiting parishioners after his daughter Issy’s death: he can take it, he’s up again, he’s fine, he’s fine…
The Bradleys are part of a faith community that I’ve tried to describe empathetically, and while I hope their beliefs will interest readers, I also hope that, at its heart, A Song for Issy Bradley is a novel about family; the story of what happens when everyday life is interrupted by a tragedy and a group of very different people wrestle with doubt, faith and the mechanics of miracles as they work out how to carry on.
Thank you, Carys, for this beautiful piece which reflects the novel so well.
IN BRIEF: My View of A Song for Issy Bradley
A novel about the death of a child is one which some will approach with trepidation and I did too. But whilst Issy Bradley is inevitably very sad and painful to read, instead of being depressing it is actually uplifting, hopeful and surprisingly funny. Carys captures the voices and personalities of the Bradley family (in many ways they’re much like any other), highlighting the different ways in which they are dealing with grief while normal life continues. I wasn’t surprised to empathise most with the mother, Claire, but the voice of youngest child Jacob was heartrendingly poignant. The novel gives revealing insights into the Mormon faith which I found fascinating. The buzz around this book began early and no wonder: it is brave and generous with real depth. I doubt anyone who reads this story will ever forget it.
Author photo © Colin McPherson
So many fantastic guest posts coming from the authors of my Summer Reads that the schedule is up in the air but I can promise you another one before the weekend!