Book review: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

There is no word in the English language to describe a parent who has lost their child, no way to signify to someone in just one word that this is a person who is grieving, who is trying to come to terms with an unspeakable loss.

How we grieve, how a parent grieves, is at the centre of Carys Bray’s wonderful debut novel A Song for Issy Bradley. When Issy Bradley dies, her strict Mormon family all deal in different ways. Issy’s mum Claire is consumed by grief, taking to Issy’s bed for weeks, unable to cope with her husband Ian’s blind faith in his faith, which he has turned to more than ever to deal with Issy’s death. Their oldest daughter Zippy finds her faith being challenged for the first time in her life, as she battles between her grief at losing Issy and her desire to be a typical teenage girl. Her brother Alma addresses the loss by continuing to push against the Mormon faith, but discovers that it may not be that easy. And youngest child Jacob is optimistic that Issy will come back, that a miracle will occur and his sister will return to him.

Faith, or the lack of it, is a preoccupation of A Song for Issy Bradley. Bray, who was brought up Mormon, left the church in her thirties, almost the opposite of Claire, who in the book we find out became a Mormon because of her relationship with Ian. Claire takes on the Mormon faith willingly, but still rails against it sometimes, finding it difficult to reconcile her needs for herself and her family with the demands placed on her by her faith. Claire is cynical, she gets offended, she wants to be selfish – all perfectly human traits but ones that don’t always sit well with her faith. 

On the other side we have Ian, who is deeply immersed in being a model Mormon, so much so that he is constantly sacrificing his time with his family. His behaviour could be easily mocked, but Bray doesn’t do that. Rather, she shows a man who knows no other way to deal with loss and life than to think of everything as being in the hands of a higher being, and I found myself respecting Ian for his faith, even if I didn’t agree with some, many, of his actions. 

And in the middle we have the children, who are all on a various scale of faith. We see Zippy going through both a ritual from her faith and a ritual from teenage life at one point in the novel, and finding herself confused about how they fit together, and whether one can be reconciled with the other. Alma displays doubt about his faith, clashing constantly with his father and rebelling at every opportunity, but part of this is clearly just a teenage boy chafing against boundaries. And both the teenagers try to distract themselves by using their faith, or the lack thereof, from Issy’s death, because they don’t know how to deal with death any more than their parents do.

Then there is Jacob. Jacob is arguably the heart and soul of the Bradley family, and the heart and soul of the book. In this child, Bray shows the best elements of faith (the worst elements, in Bray/Claire’s opinion, of the Mormon faith are displayed throughout the novel), as Jacob wishes and prays for a miracle that will return his sister to his family and make them all happy again. Jacob’s faith is pure, unblemished by rituals and responsibilities to other people, and unmarked by judgement from others.

A Song for Issy Bradley is a story about faith, but not necessarily religion, although that plays a huge part. Rather, Bray has created a story about faith in family, about the bonds of love that bind people together, even after someone has died, about the ways in which humans are tested and the ways in which they survive. It’s a story about grief that moved me to tears for a family that I loved and mourned with.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Hutchinson. This did not affect my review.

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