Most novels featuring Mormon families focus on polygamy. I get that – there’s all the built-in drama any novelist would kill for. But as a former Mormon I’d long searched for fiction that presented an authentic Mormon experience from a British perspective, where polygamy is part of doctrine but not practice.
I wanted to write about the life I’d lived: in the fish bowl of a tightly knit Mormon congregation uncomfortably embedded in a Northern working-class community, and while I was interested in marriage (what novelist isn’t?) I was also curious about sibling bonds, and what it felt like to be a parent struggling to keep a disintegrating family together.
In The Friday Gospels, I invented the Leekes: a family bound to each other with eternal covenant bonds, and brewing a number of secrets from an embarrassing medical condition to an illicit extra-marital affair. With all that, who needs an extra few wives? At the centre of my novel is Jeannie: a pregnant teenager who is a volatile cocktail of hormones, faith, rebellion, revenge fantasises and hero-worship of her missionary older brother, Gary. On the day the story takes place, the pressure-cooker community she’s a part of sets her on a path that will expose all her family’s secrets and change their lives for good.
Gary’s fear of failure and his sense of being utterly overwhelmed by the expectations his community places on him were familiar to many missionaries I spoke to. Jeannie’s terror at letting her family down isn’t that uncommon either, exacerbated, in her case, by a trauma she doesn’t even have the words to describe.
Teenage years are hard for everyone – but perhaps they’re a little harder for some Mormon kids. There’s the weight of expectation about the future – boys are expected to serve an ‘honourable mission’ and marriage and children (in that order) is held up as an ideal for both young men and women. Mothers are told that no other success can compensate for failure in the home, fathers encouraged to be financially as well as spiritually responsible for their wife and children.
There’s the pressure to be a constant example of the Mormon way of life to non-Mormons, which can’t make school much fun for anyone. No-one’s forced to remain a member of the LDS church – in fact hundreds of people resign their memberships every day. But that’s a decision that can tear apart a family and, as I know better than anyone, even if you do leave, there are some things that you just can’t wash out of your hair.
Family is one of those things – and while it’s not always easy, a tight-knit, loyal community, no matter what its faults, isn’t always a bad thing. When Jeannie and Gary are finally able to face the sadness, imperfection and disgrace in their own lives, human compassion, sacrifice and rescue come from the most unlikely quarters – indeed, this compassion and sacrifice is as much because of the family’s Mormonism as it is in spite of it.
The Friday Gospels is out now, published by Sceptre.