There’s a moment in A Song for Issy Bradley, Carys Bray’s luminous first novel (and 15 Bytes Book Award finalist this year), when a teenage Mormon girl named Zippy is asked at a party she’s not supposed to be at, “[I]f you weren’t already a member, would you join the Church?”
This is not only the question being asked of Latter-day Saint youth of the “millennial” set today, when religious orthodoxy of the Mormon kind seems no match for the information age; it was also the question that many boomers like myself asked—and are still asking—in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the stories of our faith began to fray while changing social mores, underscored by a rock ‘n’ roll beat, crept towards relativism and inclusive thinking.
What’s startling about Zippy being asked this question is that it’s happening in England where her family lives, where her dad is the bishop of the local ward and where her youngest sibling, of the book’s title, has just unexpectedly died at the tender age of 5.
Issy Bradley is the first novel I’m aware of that despite being so unabashedly, incontrovertibly steeped in the quaint religion of my childhood and my ancestors, has found an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly the book exists because of the faith, not unlike author Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev exists because of Orthodox Judaism. Bray’s book is evidence, of course, that “quaint” (to use a descriptor by the godfather of Mormon Letters, Levi Peterson) or not, the faith has nevertheless become a global phenomenon: America’s most successful indigenous religion. That this movement transplanted from New England and the Midwest to Utah is being reflected with such unvarnished urgency outside of the so-called “Mormon Corridor” is not only startling but moving.
I submit that this is a book that could not have been written in “Zion” (where Jews are considered “gentiles”) because it takes distance from the “mother ship” to see its contours in all its intractable complexity, including both its horrors as well as its graceful resolutions.
Ian Bradley is a Mormon from England who has married a convert, Claire, and proceeded to live the life that, if it weren’t for the family’s vernacular spun from the Queen’s English, could be in South Jordan, Utah. There are four children that Ian, as a schoolteacher, can’t adequately provide for with his wife at home; there’s the prohibitions that start with alcohol and tobacco but somehow exponentially expand to include a maddening (and lunatic) list of “no ways”; and, hugely, there is the penchant for performing: not only for “non-members” a-plenty, but to each other. (More on that later.)
In the hubbub of family / church life, no one seems to notice that Issy isn’t getting out of bed one morning. Claire is doing double-duty while Ian, the patriarch of not only the family but of the congregation, spends more time dealing with needy fellow Mormons than with his equally needy children and his increasingly exhausted wife. In fact, Ian is meeting his own driving need to be needed, to be pastoral. It’s his platform and power trip, and it rings so true to the reader who’s lived the life that it is painful to witness, even in prose.
When Issy dies, each of the remaining family members begin to fray, to question, to act out, and to reach for equilibrium through their own template based on where they are in life. Bray is in remarkable form here, each chapter delineating the inner workings of one character with distinctive psychology and even diction, alternating with the others throughout.
For prepubescent Jacob, the penultimate child, there is an obsession on resurrection—his younger sister’s to be exact. For his older brother Alma (“Al”), a teen hankering after football (soccer), which has been forbidden (one of those lunatic prohibitions that somehow come creeping into families of this tribe), it is battling with ruffians in the neighborhood who are no match, finally, for the apocryphal Three Nephites, who Al conveniently believes make an appearance. And for the oldest, Zippy, the girl who has been asked the question above as to whether she would choose the totalizing identity she’s been born to, it is about her burgeoning sexuality and the promise/specter of marriage. Will she be worthy? Will she be obedient? Will she find her one true soul mate for “celestial marriage”?
The author not only displays rhetorical craft, she has a stinging accuracy when it comes to sketching out the contemporary trappings of claustrophobic ward life, and that curious thing that has become nothing less than cultish–the notion that the irreducible unit of eternity is not God, nor the individual soul, but the nuclear family. For a Mormon of any stripe, this is embarrassing, hilarious, horrifying and touching stuff–all at the same time–which is why this is a game-changer for the literature of the Latter-day Saints. It’s more than just an expose (despite its virtues, think Martha Beck’s memoir Leaving the Saints) and it certainly isn’t the laughable novels routinely posited by Deseret Book as if it were a Pez dispenser of saccharine treats. But more telling than that, Issy Bradley is compelling narrative for the outsider who doesn’t know a Mormon from a mushroom.
The most interesting characters are the parents: Ian, the obedient ecclesiastical lay officer and Claire, the convert who, in her mind and in others (including her devout in-laws) just can’t get it right, retreating as she does to her dead daughter’s bed for weeks and abandoning the family altogether.
“What is she meant to learn from this experience,” she muses in third person at one point, the family slowly falling into ruins while ward members arrive at the door one after another with heavy casseroles.
Ian would answer the question with a list of virtues like the ones written on Sunday-school chalkboard each week, irrespective of the lesson topic: patience, faith, long-suffering, endurance . . . It’s easy for him, his thoughts traverse a one-way system, there’s no room for roundabouts of doubt or recalculations; once he settles on something it’s true and she mostly likes this about him, it’s what makes him so steadfast and loyal. When he decided he loved her she knew he wouldn’t ever change his mind; loving her became a fact of his existence, as veritable and infallible as scripture. He’s a man who sticks to the road of his experience, he doesn’t look left or right or back; he never rubbernecks or pulls over to glory in the wreckage of other people’s lives, he never gossips or points fingers; he calls encouragement as he passes those who’ve broken down, he throws a towrope to people in difficulty, but he always keeps to his designated route. There’s one truth, one way, and Ian is following it.
This story opens with Claire. It’s perhaps her story. But true to the fashion of this tribe, it is the family that is central, boundary-less — an industrial fusion of individual, group and church. There are no references outside the mechanical universe of the “Kingdom,” and God help the poor soul who leaves that place that is both the center of life and, at the same time, its distant horizon. The imperative in such a place, therefore, is to be righteous. And if you aren’t righteous, then you better perform righteousness, even, and most importantly, to yourself.
But leaving that place is what all of them do in A Song for Issy Bradley, with various outcomes. For Claire, her departure, even temporarily, takes her the furthest out, propels her existentially into a cosmos she does not now know, though once she did. And this is where Carys Bray shows not only her craft but her generosity of spirit. Whatever the Bradleys are, they are infinitely human. And though a creed will try as it might to set its believers indelibly apart from the “world”—to a chosen status of some kind—life has a way of being relentless, like the waves of the sea where this remarkable book both opens and closes. It’s a tortured but ultimately tender valentine from Mother England to the American religion that carried away tens of thousands of her children before returning to her shores again to stay as an established and seemingly ever-expanding faith. Fierce rectitude may send this little Anglo-Mormon family into a vortex of pain and frantic script-writing of the self, but whatever one says about religious fundamentalism of this kind, it is the family’s loyalty to each other that will bring them out in the end.
The question Zippy is asked at the beginning of the novel is by the son of the local Stake President–in Utah-speak, the leader of a Mormon diocese. By the end of this page-turner of multiple delights and a trenchant excavation of family and faith, “Adam” announces to the girl who is in love with him that he’s not going on the expected church mission for young men.
“Your dad will be so disappointed.”
“Will he let you live at home?”
“I hope so.”
“No one will want to marry you.”
“No one at church —so that’s about zero point three percent of the population.”
She just about manages to stop herself from saying, “it’s more than a percentage point, it’s me.” But you’ll still come to church won’t you? She asks. “You can’t leave completely.”
“You’ve just done a good job of explaining why I can’t stay,” he says gently.
It would seem Bray is saying that we are all born to a life. And that life is good enough, bad enough, and transforming enough for each of us, even Issy.
A Song for Issy Bradley
Ballantine Books (2014)
Carys Bray was awarded the Scott Prize for her debut collection, Sweet Home. She lives in Southport, England, with her husband and four children. A Song for Issy Bradley is her first novel which is a finalist this year for the 15 Bytes Book Award for fiction.
David Pace is a writer and literary editor of 15 Bytes. Author of the novel “Dream House on Golan Drive,” (Signature Books), his creative work has also appeared in Quarterly West, ellipsis…literature and art, Alligator Juniper, Sunstone, Dialogue and reprinted/posted in Phone Fiction. His by-line has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, Huffington Post and elsewhere. www.davidgpace.com