Book Review: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

How much did I like this book? So much that I do not regret the night of sleep that I lost to my inability to put it down. (That has literally never happened to me before. I always hate myself in the morning.)

Meet Bishop Bradley, the obediac. His wife Claire, who is not so much. His children, each with their own challenges. The character depiction and development is top-notch. The plot is, in turns, hilarious and heartbreaking. The family’s Mormonism doesn’t just permeate every scene, but every line, every thought. And every bit of Mormonism is here: our agony over our past and present, our faith and foibles, our cultural quirks and so much more.

The author’s info announces that she has left the church and while your book group may have trouble with the one moderately graphic sex scene and f-bombs, I felt this was an ultimately faith- and culture-affirming book.

I’m not going to say much more about it, although there is so much to discuss here–from how polygamy impacts women’s lives today, to how we balance church and family and obedience and autonomy, to how we deal with tragedy, to thinking about the inevitable dramas of marriage, to what we do to our young women, to how we think about miracles.

This one’s a winner.

Review copy provided by publisher.

21 comments for “Book Review: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

  1. Not sure if BBC Radio iPlayer is available in the US, this book is the current Radio 4 Book at Bedtime (since Monday), and episodes are available to listen for a week on BBC iPlayer. It seems to be pretty well done. I think it runs for 2 weeks.

  2. I had such a different reaction to this book. I am frankly shocked that you found it “ultimately faith- and culture-affirming”. I found the Mormonism in the book to be somewhere between repellant and horrifying. It is clearly an insiders view, and there is nothing technically incorrect, but it felt like all our worst moments and tendencies on display (chewing gum lesson, teenage girls in wedding dresses, neurotic unmarried 29yo, obsessive end of days weirdness, kitschy RS crafts, self-justifying “sympathy” cards) stripped of anything redeeming or beautiful. I am very much in favor of honest reflections of who we are, including the problems in our culture and theology, but this did not feel honest or accurate to me. The people in this book are almost exclusively motivated by fear of exclusion and keeping up appearances to maintain status in the group. It was, frankly, a cult. There felt like almost no genuine interaction or love between people, only forced, correlated, manipulative, stilted weirdness, even between family members. And most significantly, people’s spirits were just not being fed. They felt no real love from God, no acceptance from or worship of Jesus, no warmth and hope and grace. The father and bishop is one of the most stilted, underdeveloped, pathetic people in literature, not at all reflective of many of the genuine, compassionate, good men I know in the church. It all made me extremely sad. If only our worst tendencies went amuck, I do fear we would get a culture akin to that in the book, but that has not been my experience. I have felt love, acceptance, and soul expanding moments in the church, both in my interactions with God and with my ward members. I regretted that Bray apparently did not. If this reflected my experience, I would get me and my family out too. The ending is extraordinary, however, but only because for a short moment everyone was finally getting out of the horrible restrictive straightjacket their faith put on them, so they could actually breathe for once and feel something real.

  3. Gina, that is interesting that your reaction is so different from mine.

    Yes, for example, the chewing gum lesson was there, but the mom redeemed it. (I’m a big believer in redemption.) The same is true, I think, for most of your other examples of the weirdness.

    “The people in this book are almost exclusively motivated by fear of exclusion and keeping up appearances to maintain status in the group.”

    I didn’t see that in the main. The dad seems to believe there is safety in obedience. The mom and older son genuinely struggle with what they believe, even when that struggle causes them trouble with others. (In other words, the opposite of trying to keep of appearances/not be excluded.)

    I found the father compelling, maybe because I recognize in myself the same desire to confront suffering with heightened uber-orthodoxy, as if it might protect me. (Hint: it won’t.) So he seemed painfully real to me.

    Anyway, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts with us. It is always interesting to see how different people read things differently. And I’m glad you have had such a good experience in the church. I have, too.

  4. I have just found this publication owing to trying to track down the origin of a Muslim modesty diagram over on with women. I have shared this to my facebook page. I was Muslim and converted to Mormon, and have since realized that I can not stop being Muslim for a number of reasons. So, in a day when Muslim women being covered is very unpopular among many women, does this mean that the church makes at least some effort to engage and understand Muslim thinking?

  5. Gina, I just finished listening to the broadcast version I linked above, last episode. My observation is that it does a pretty good job of representing Mormons in Britain, I certainly recognised types of those characters, and the millennialist strand are quite strong here. All that emphasis on being good, and getting things right, and keeping going. Yep!

  6. I’ve known that polygamy still goes on within the SLC church for some time, as it goes on in non-religious and Muslim culture. This is no surprise, or did you mean how past polygamy affects families in the present day. Certain rules need to be followed in its practice. I’ll be ordering my copy soon.

  7. Hala, one of the fastest ways to be excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to engage in a polygamous relationship. (The exception to this: if a man’s first wife dies, he can marry a second. Because we believe marriage can be eternal, this is a polygamous relationship in heaven if not on earth.) So perhaps you are thinking of “off-shoot” or “splinter” groups, but not “the SLC church.”

    What I meant in the review was that (1) the legacy of 19th century polygamy and (2) the potential for polygamy in the next life still affects LDS today.

  8. Julie: For the record, If a Woman’s First Husband dies, she can marry a second as well. She can also be sealed to more than one spouse, just not while she herself is alive. (a cultural quirk I expect will change)

  9. Matt W., true, but I think that, given the gender disparity there, most members parse it to mean that a multiple-sealed woman will have to choose one spouse in the next life, while a multiple-sealed man will be polygamous. (I have no idea if that is actually how it will work out, but that is my sense of how most people interpret that disparity, which is why I phrased it that way.)

    But this is pretty inside-baseball stuff; the main point that I was trying to make for Hala–which holds regardless of how one comes down on the issue we are discussing–is that the LDS Church does not now permit polygamy on earth.

    (And we need to arrange that central Texas meet-up soon.)

  10. This is an issue I have not understood about Mormons. Matt 22:30 For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. Is this passage considered part of the apostate scripture?

  11. Thank you, Julie. I will step back now. It was not my intention to derail the conversation.

  12. Hi Julie, thanks very much for the review. I bought the book on the strength of it. I found it wonderfully written and the main characters compelling and sympathetic. However, I tend to agree with Gina, especially re. the supporting cast who seemed to me more like caricatures than anything real, esp. Sister Campbell and the Ian’s parents.

    I disagree that it’s an accurate portrayal of Mormon life in the UK and struggle to see how it is faith and culture affirming. Nevertheless, I’m really glad I read it because it was very well written, moving, and challenged me in important ways. Thanks again

  13. I just finished the book and it was amazing. I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified. Each time a cringe-worthy aspect of Mormon culture was explained I had to think “well, that’s not technically inaccurate…” as we all know people who have said or done similar things. It seems, though, that the book focuses disproportionately on on the extreme cases and portrays them as if they’re typical cases. (With perhaps the exception of the Stake President who seems a more “typical” Mormon in terms of his concern with rules, etc.)

    Or perhaps it’s a more accurate representation of the “Retrenchment” Mormonism of the 1970s and 1980s? From what my mother tells me (who grew up in those years) it sounds like the Bradley family is similar to what her parents and home life were like during those decades. Perhaps the author is channeling what was a more representative picture of Mormon culture from the previous generation, from which there are still some hold-outs here and there.

    Either way, it was a moving and emotional book that I enjoyed thoroughly. To me, the key strength of the book is its grappling with the question of “why do bad things happen to good people” and how are we supposed to respond to stories in our culture of God intervening to “save the day” in relatively small matters while struggling to comprehend lived experiences where God does NOT “save the day” in comparatively large matters.

  14. RK, I am a convert from the mid 1990s so wasn’t around for the 1970s and 1980s in the church. From what I’ve heard and read, however, this experience of Mormonism in this book struck me as similar to that era also. I was very surprised when one of the characters pulled out a cell phone and I realized this was actually set in the present day.

  15. Gina, James, RK, I grew up in the church here in the 70s and 80s, and I find the writing resonates with me, and my experiences. Perhaps for those of us with that background, and whose extended families have that background the church even can be experientially different than for those who converted later, in that those earlier experiences colour the way in which we both hear and understand the way things are now.
    Additionally, the stake of which I am currently a member is the same stake (boundary changes aside) in which I grew up. Many of those longtime members are still around, and still speak in those same ways, expressing those views and attitudes. Further, their children and grandchildren are many of the ward and stake leaders now, and in a lot of cases carry those views and attitudes forward, both as leaders and in raising their/our families, as result of their 70s and 80s upbringing. Indeed at the moment it feels like there is a mini-retrenchment in the stake as a result of a lot leadership over the last 18 months. Millenialist expressions are not infrequent, and our current Bishop is very concerned about obedience to a priesthood authority, not only for ward members, but also for himself as well. Aspects of the father in the story reminded me an awful lot of him actually.

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