The Bradley family are devout Mormons. Ian is the Bishop, his wife, Claire, converted to the faith before marrying him and together they are bringing up their four children – Alma, Zippy, Jacob and Issy, following stringent Mormon rules. The author was herself, until relatively recently, a practising Mormon, so it’s fair to assume the book is an accurate representation of family life within the faith, with all the accompanying homilies and entreaties.
Bishop Bradley is big on sacrifice and duty, believing his path to heaven is assured just so long as he devotes himself to serving his church and spreading the word. He prioritises church duties over family duties, which is why it’s left to an overstretched Claire to shop for Jacob’s birthday party and organise the food. Her youngest, Issy, is unwell and tucked up in bed, Claire too busy to pay her much attention until it’s too late and tragically she dies.
It’s Bray’s ability to be quietly devastating that makes the story so affecting. Never mawkish or sentimental, she uses humour and a warm understanding of the human psyche to explore each family member’s thoughts and feelings in turn. They struggle to cope with their grief in very different ways. Jacob believes Issy can be brought back to life with his faith. Zippy focuses her attentions on a classmate she fancies, the only other Mormon at her school, one who she hopes will marry her. Alma lives for football and is the most cynical, yet finds unexpected comfort from one of the Brothers at church. Ian throws himself into his ministry and tries to keep home life going when Claire takes to Issy’s bed and refuses to speak or get up. Claire, overwhelmed with a deep depression that goes unrecognised because it wouldn’t be the done thing, questions her faith and waits for a sign from God. (I won’t plot spoiler, but there was a Claire scene that broke my heart and cemented my absolute dislike of Ian.)
Writing about the beach Bray describes, “The track is sandier now, damp and sticky; gritty, like cake mix.” It’s this descriptive power, employing the everyday and and mixing it with insight, which really elevates this novel. The children’s voices all feel accurate – Jacob aged 7: “There are so many kinds of never. There’s the never Mum uses when she says, “Never talk to strangers; it’s dangerous,” and there’s the never Dad uses when he says, “Never play with your food; it’s bad manners.” But Mum talks to plenty of people she doesn’t know, and Jacob has seen Dad break Oreos in half to lick the creamy bit.” These simple contradictions are followed by larger ones. At the centre of it all, the question why Heavenly Father would take Issy.
A wonderful debut, full of heart.