A brief synopsis of a novel can sometimes do it no favours. To say that Carys Bray’s début A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson, June) is about a Mormon family in Lancashire coming to terms with the sudden death of a young daughter is correct —but makes it sound unbearably sad. In places it is devastating, but it is also unexpectedly funny, even joyful, a hugely impressive novel about what it means to grieve—and to be part of a family.
Head of the Bradley clan is Ian, a maths teacher and devout Mormon raised in the church who has recently been appointed bishop of his local congregation. Ian has an unswerving faith but the rest of the family don’t find the Mormon teachings quite so easy to live by. His wife Claire converted in order to marry him but has trouble with the rules of the church. Elder daughter Zippy (Zipporah) is struggling to reconcile the feelings she is developing for a boy and living as a good Mormon, and football-mad Alma (saddled with a name he hates after a prophet from the Book of Mormon) just wants to kick a ball around with his mates.
When four-year-old Issy dies unexpectedly, the family starts to splinter. Ian clings to his belief that they will all be reunited with Issy in the Celestial Kingdom and tries to ensure life goes on as normal. He can’t understand why Claire, struck mute by shock and grief, retreats to Issy’s bottom bunk bed and refuses to get up. Zippy and Alma miss their little sister unbearably. Only Jacob, aged seven, has a plan. He’s going to perform a resurrection miracle—exactly like the ones he has learnt about at church—and bring Issy back where she belongs.
Carys Bray was herself brought up in a strict Mormon family in Southport which has provided her with a rich seam to mine for her first novel. “Growing up I’d heard all sorts of miracle stories,” she says. “Even stories where people had, allegedly, been resurrected and I was thinking about that—what if you were a small child and you really believed that was possible? That’s where it started, with Jacob.”
Bray captures Jacob’s seven-year-old mindset and voice effortlessly, and the teenage children are equally convincing possibly because, as a mother of four herself, she has had plenty of opportunity to observe how children make sense of the world. Bray has also chosen to write her characters in the close third person, partly inspired by Ali Smith’s The Accidental (“she does the third person so close that sometimes you forget when you’re reading it, you think you’re in first”).
While Bray’s Mormon upbringing informs the novel (“if I had to say which character I was most like when I was a Mormon, it would definitely be Ian, I was a very dogmatic, literal believer”), it wasn’t until she left the church five years ago that she found the freedom to write. “I couldn’t write until I left because I felt like I couldn’t be my authentic self. There are a lot of rules— for example you are not supposed to watch films that are rated 15 and above—so content-wise it really limits [you] . . . you wouldn’t have any swearing or sex and also there’s a thing about ‘niceness’ as well . . . So when I left, it suddenly became very easy to write because I wasn’t worrying about whether I was conforming to certain standards of what you are supposed to do.”
She describes leaving the church as a “gradual estrangement” rather than a dramatic loss of faith and once she started to write, there was no stopping her. She had married young, at just 20, and had given birth to five children within seven years but reaching a milestone birthday—her 30th—she decided it was time to go to university. After a first degree in English Literature from the Open University, she began an MA in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk. As part of her masters, she started to write short stories which, encouraged by her tutors, she started to enter writing competitions. In 2010, Bray won the Edge Hill Prize (for the best short story by an MA student) which led to her acquiring an agent. She then won the Scott Prize, awarded to an unpublished collection of short stories, and the prize was publication with independent Norwich-based publisher Salt— and Sweet Home was published in 2012.
Work in progress
Bray is now working on a second novel of which all she will say is that it is about a father and a daughter but there will be no more Mormon characters after A Song for Issy Bradley. “It was the right time to do it, when it was still fresh in my mind, that whole world. I don’t intend to go back there, so I knew that if I ever wanted to write a book with Mormon characters, it was a good time to do it.”
Bray writes beautifully and movingly about grief. When she was 23, her baby daughter died, never being well enough to come home from the hospital. “Afterwards, I would imagine ways in which it could have been worse. And maybe the whole book is an exercise in imagining ways it could have been worse. So I suppose, although some of the grieving in the book maybe is related to things I’ve experienced, most of it isn’t,” she says.
Her achievement is that A Song for Issy Bradley is not a sad book, but a joyful one. “One of the surprising things about grief is the way something dreadful can happen but you can be laughing within hours of it. I remember getting ready for my daughter’s funeral and I went out with a friend to buy a new dress and her little girl, who was four, said to me, ‘Why are you buying a new dress?’ and I opened my mouth to answer, and she said, ‘Won’t it get dirty when you dig the hole?’.
“Funny things still happen, don’t they?”
Formats: hb £12.99/e-book tbc
Rights: US (Ballantine)
Editor: Jocasta Hamilton, Hutchinson
Agent: Veronique Baxter, David Higham Associates
1975: Born in Stockport, Merseyside
1995: Married, and had five children within seven years
2006-2008: BA English Literature, Open University
2010: MA in Creative Wrtiting, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk
2012: Publication of short story collection Sweet Home (Salt) which won the Scott Prize (111 copies sold via Nielsen BookScan)