| Book Review
A Death in the Family
Carys Bray's A Song for Issy Bradley
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.”
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.
“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.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Kimball Art Center UP: Over the Moon and Under the Sea: Wasatch Back Student Art Show & Young Artist Academy Showcase. UPCOMING: Posterity and Parks: Doug Leen. Inspired by WPA-era serigraphs (also called screenprints) used to advertise America’s national parks, Doug Leen’s work is both aesthetically and historically significant. AND: You Are Here: Svavar Jonatansson and Jared Steffensen.
This exhibitions presents two unique views of Utah. It begins with Inland/Outland: Utah—a multidisciplinary project by Icelandic artist Svavar Jonatansson and Utah-based composers Matthew Durrant and Devin Maxwell. Their four short films comprised of timelapse video and original music create a mesmerizing and objective-minded look at the majesty of Utah’s landscapes. In contrast, Utah-based artist Jared Steffensen’s work reconstructs the state’s identity through appropriated movie footage that is filmed in Utah but depicts a different place in the movie’s plot—Arizona, New Mexico, and even Mars. These two complimenting examinations of Utah pull into focus our own awareness, misconceptions, and perceptions of our surroundings.
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States. Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, a librarian and a postman of modest means, began acquiring works by contemporary artists in the 1960s. Over the next forty years the couple amassed a vast, diverse collection of contemporary art. In 1992 the Vogel's transferred their collection to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. However, due to the continuing growth of the collection, in 2008 the Vogel's and the NGA announced the dispersal of 2,500 works by 177 artists to museums throughout the country to heighten public awareness of contemporary art and artists.
AND: ARTsySTEM: The Changing Climates of the Arts & Sciences. Artists featured in this exhibition range from being inspired by science to those who engage in direct scientific analysis within a branch of STEM. In offering this diversity of relationships between the Arts and Sciences through a selection of works suggesting different definitions and paradigms of the connectivity among these fields, we start to get a sense of the similar yet diverging streams of intention in the Arts and Sciences along with their shared methodologies and intuitions about order and disorder. (see our review page 1).
Eccles Community Art Center UP: The two and three dimensional art of Ogden artist, Eric Zschiesche will be exhibited in the Main Gallery. The Carriage House Gallery will feature the paintings of plein air, Midway artist Susette Billedeaux Gertsch and the mosaic tables of Roy artist, Paulette Smith.
BDAC UPCOMING: Annual Statewide Competition.
Howa Gallery UPCOMING: Grand Opening exhibition featuring over a dozen artists.
15 Bytes Book Awards
Theories of Forgetting (Fiction 2 Collective) by Lance Olsen
Reading Lance Olsen’s 12th novel, Theories of Forgetting, is a process that requires a degree of dedication and a plan on how to proceed. Pages are split in two with part of the text upside down; some pages also contain marginalia and photographs and the reader is required constantly to turn the book around in his or her hands to access everything. This format happily isn’t for Kindle – it is a process that must be personally experienced, like one of its central themes, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
[Read the April 2014 15 Bytes review of Theories of Forgetting by Michael McLane here]
Pale Harvest (Torrey House Press) by Braden Hepner
In this debut novel Hepner instructs the reader on the day-to-day drudgery of a small dairy farm in northern Utah. Jack Selvedge, a young man charged with desire to live larger but cursed with no means works and lives on his grandfather’s farm. From this gray setting a stark beauty emerges in small details like the corral sand tinged with dry manure that fans up from a bucking bull’s stomped hoof as it tries to throw its rider off his back. Jack, himself, seems to be a young bull, whipped with the restraints of routine: Fence mending, tractor repair, feeding, plowing, milking, milking, milking. The forever scent of cattle infuses his skin, sinks into his soul. He carries this load around the landscape with his buddies, a cadre of small town conformists all stamping their boots against the earth looking for a break in the fence. A beautiful young woman comes to town and sets fire to the tedium. At once bleak and pleasingly beautiful the novel grows true from pain, betrayal, loss, love, and pale salvation.
[Read the November 2014 15 Bytes review of Pale Harvest by Larry Menlove here]
A Song for Issy Bradley (Ballantine Books) by Carys Bray
[see our review left column]