Learning to “linger with the givenness of the present moment”: A Review of A Song for Issy Bradley

A surprising number of Mormon novels came out in 2014, but none of them seemed to receive as much attention as Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley. Admittedly, when I first learned about the novel, I yawned. Jenn Ashworth’s The Friday Gospels had just given us a novel about a dysfunctional Mormon family in the United Kingdom, so nothing about Issy Bradley seemed all that original. For this reason, perhaps, I took my time getting to the novel—a delay I now regret. While A Song for Issy Bradley is not the One Mighty and Strong Novel avid #MormonLit watchers are waiting for, it is an impressive addition to a growing list of well-written and finely-crafted twenty-first century Mormon novels.

A Song for Issy Bradley takes place within a small Mormon community in Southport, a coastal town in the United Kingdom. Its main characters, the Bradleys, are a typical LDS family with too many obligations and hardly any time to fulfill them. When the novel opens, their home is on the brink of bedlam. It is seven-year-old Jacob’s birthday, and his friends from school are coming over for a party. Ian, the family patriarch and ward bishop, is on his way out the door to tend to a chronically-needy ward member. This makes the morning more stressful for Claire, his wife, who feels the burden of her husband’s calling and struggles to meet cultural pressures that ask her “to make a willing sacrifice” of his presence (28). Ian, after all, is the kind of bishop who can’t refuse a petitioner. Although he has difficulty discerning the Spirit in his work, he tries to do everything by the book—literally, the Handbook of Instructions—and be there for people as “Jesus would do if he were here” (44). Unfortunately, that often means not being there for his own family, which frustrates Claire, a convert, who tends to be less rigid in her Mormon practice and belief.

Rounding out the Bradley family are their four children—Zippy, Alma, Jacob, and Issy—each named for characters in scripture.[i] Zippy, a teenager, is adrift in a sea of kitschy chastity object lessons and tactless admonitions to dress modestly. Alma, a deacon, is a rebel who would rather play soccer than pass the sacrament. Jacob, the seven-year-old, is a firm believer in the mystical world of the primary manual. And Issy, the youngest daughter, is the object of everyone’s love. She is the glue the holds them together.

As the novel unfolds, readers get a sense of how insular the Bradleys are. As an active Mormon family that follows the prescribed routine of Mormon life with exactness, the Bradleys rely heavily on the Church and the gospel to help them navigate an outside world that seems very foreign to them. Ian, for example, awkwardly shares pass-along cards not out of any real concern for the non-Mormons around him, but out of a sense of obligation to the gospel work. Claire, likewise, “quietly discourages friendships with nonmembers” because “it makes things simpler, easier” (29). This attitudes rubs off even on Alma, the most outgoing of the Bradleys, who feels, on rare instances when non-Mormons visit their home, that he is “an outsider, someone who has grown up in the country of the house without managing to learn its language” (35).

This is a feeling common to many Mormons, of course, and Bray uses it, along with many other cultural subtleties, to show the Bradley’s insular Mormon world as a bubble stretched to its breaking point. Initially, to be sure, their aloofness and orthodoxy is a sign of their faith and devotion to the Church. Yet, as the novel develops, it becomes clear—at least to the reader—that their faith, like their commitment to the routine, relies too heavily on gospel clichés and unchallenged cultural norms. As the father, for example, Ian feels responsible for nurturing the faith of his family, but since his own faith is rather shallow and unexamined, the family is like a house of cards on a wobbly table. This becomes especially apparent when Issy, the youngest Bradley, dies suddenly from meningitis. Her loss sends a shockwave through the family, and each member crashes and copes differently. Ian denies his pain and spouts armchair spirituality, Claire sinks into depression, and the children fare no better.

Upsetting the house of cards is a common formula for conflict in Mormon fiction, particularly since the late 1960s, so situating the novel in Mormon literary traditions is not challenging. Its most obvious precursor is Linda Sillitoe’s 1987 novel Sideways to the Sun, which likewise explores the consequences of complacency and routine Mormon faith in times of loss. Written when campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment were common practice among members of the LDS Church in the United States, Sillitoe’s novel tells the story of a Mormon woman who finds strength—and power—after being abandoned by her husband, a man who had hitherto been the center and ordering figure of her life. Like A Song for Issy Bradley, though, the novel is about the whole family and the ways it restructures itself once the trauma of loss awakens it to the flaws in the system holds it together.

For Sideways to the Sun, this awakening becomes a critique of a patriarchal order that structures church, community, and home around the authority of men and priesthood. Such a critique is present in A Song for Issy Bradley—the novel’s men are uniformly patriarchal—yet Bray seems less interested in blaming the patriarchy than the seemingly arbitrary cultural practices that support and perpetuate it. Indeed, Bray seems to find a way to work in every cultural critique that has been leveled against Mormons in the last decade, tackling such issues as modesty, insensitive pre-marital sex metaphors (chewing gum, cupcakes, etc.), the wording in temple ceremonies, eternal pregnancy, post-mortal polygamy, and others that have been heavily debated on Mormon blogs. For readers of these blogs, Bray’s book will likely be a welcome novelization of their concerns, highlighting the casual assumptions that operate in Mormonism to exacerbate its patriarchal tendencies. For readers who have little patience for the Bloggernacle, however, Bray’s attention to these issues may seem tiresome and predictable.

Of course, as Bray uses her characters to draw attention to these critiques, she flirts with flattening them in a way that sometimes detracts from the complexity of the novel. Her tendency to flatten characters, in fact, might be my biggest criticism of Bray. Zippy, to be sure, has some depth as a Molly Mormon who is not nearly as unreflectively obedient as her father, and Alma is a standout character whose irreverence and underlying compassion add significantly to the novel’s humor and pathos. On the whole, though, he other Mormon characters must fight hard not to be stereotypes. This is especially true for the minor Mormon characters, who are really caricatures of the kinds of Mormon whose visionary crazy-talk makes fast and testimony meeting interesting. While some of these characters—like the pathetic Brother Rimmer or the single Sister Valentine—have some depth to them, most of them do little more than cast Mormonism is a holding place for weirdoes and jerks. In this respect, one might be tempted to compare the Mormons in this novel to the Mormons in The Backslider, but Bray lacks Levi Peterson’s gift for compassionate satire. The better comparison would be to Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque Protestants—those larger-than-life characters whose small souls ultimately keep Christ at bay.

To be sure, Bray is not a Christian novelist like Flannery O’Connor or even Levi Peterson. In the introductory note to the second edition of Wise Blood, O’Connor suggests that readers are not likely to get her novel or her characters if they disregard the fact that “belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death.” The same could easily be said about The Backslider as well, but not Issy Bradley. In Bray’s novel, Christ is irrelevant, and if the Bradley’s find redemption—the novel’s ambiguous ending, a suspenseful reworking of the final scene of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, leaves this matter unresolved—it is through the love of family in the here-and-now—not in the eternities.

Of course, none of this is to say that the novel gives an entirely inauthentic portrait of Mormonism. Bray, who left the Church in her thirties, is deeply acquainted with the subtle tics and quirks of the Mormon world, making her characters and settings far more recognizable to Mormon readers than those in, say, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife. Indeed, while some Mormon novelists set their novels in earlier eras, as Brian Evenson does in The Open Curtain, or invent or modify certain policies or practices, as Ryan McIlvaine does in Elders, in order to critique Mormonism, Bray sticks with the facts and feels no obligation to interrupt her narrative with explanatory passages for “gentile” readers. The novel freely quotes or alludes to an assortment of hymns, scriptures, Ensign articles, and recent conference talks—all of which Mormon readers will instantly recognize. At the same time, Bray seems very selective in what she references, often foregrounding sources that offer sunny platitudes or outmoded attitudes to cast Mormonism as a rather shallow epistemology.

For this reason, perhaps, some Mormon readers might dismiss A Song for Issy Bradley for offering a too imbalanced—even shallow?—portrait of Mormonism and the Mormon people.  While I have sympathy for this position—personally, I would have liked to see more nuance in the novel—I read its selective treatment of Mormonism as a kind of utopian gesture towards identifying areas in Mormon culture that could be improved on for the benefit of families like the Bradleys. The platitudes are there, after all, and they can be harmful for those who treat them as absolutes. If the novel challenges Mormon readers in any way, it is in how it asks them to engage more meaningfully with the world around them and rely less on gospel clichés that remove them from the moment and lead—ironically—to a kind of spiritual death.

In this respect, there is much in A Song for Issy Bradley that accords well with the understanding of grace that Adam Miller outlines in “Notes on Life, Grace, and Atonement.” For Miller, after all, grace is “the givenness of whatever is received,” a formula that encourages us “to attend to the immediacy of life […] and be patient enough to linger with the givenness of the present moment.” The Bradleys, for much of the novel, seem incapable of doing this, so caught up are they in fantasies about the past and future of their lives. While the novel ends ambiguously, it offers some hope that they will wake from these fantasies and begin to live. Ultimately, though, Bray closes the novel before we can catch any certain glimpse of their future.

Some readers might think this a cruel way to end a novel, but for me it is one of the most aesthetically satisfying endings in recent Mormon fiction. While I want to read a better future for the Bradley family—one in which all of them find better ways to engage the present as more compassionate and true Mormons—I know that’s not where the novel wants me to be. The uncertainty and possibility and horror of the moment—that’s where it dropped me off and that’s where it wants me to stay.

[i] Issy, incidentally, is short for Isabel. The novel never makes it clear who her scriptural namesake is, but the only option seems to be the harlot Isabel in the Book of Mormon. An inside joke, perhaps?

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