Printed large on the inside of the dust jacket, this is the sentence we read before we reach the first page of Carys Bray’s A Song for Issy Bradley. This is the story of a Mormon family’s struggle to deal with the death of their youngest child. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints until her early thirties, Bray displays intimate knowledge of Mormon religious practices; through Issy’s family Bray explores different aspects of faith, doubt and the difficulties of maintaining religious beliefs in the modern world.
For the main body of the narrative to be about the reaction to her death, first Issy must die; it is at once both a relatively quick and hideously drawn out death. Although this given spoiler is fairly large, to read the first part of the story with foreknowledge is far more emotionally involving than to do so without. Knowledge colours our first reading, giving it a melancholy cast and leaving us resigned while her family still hope for a recovery. Very little focus is given to Issy herself and her death is viewed through the lens of her family members. Her mother, Claire, is stressed about her son’s party; Jacob is excited that it is his birthday; Zippy worries about marriage and having improper thoughts. Each chapter focuses on a different member of the family yet is closed with a short paragraph documenting Issy’s deteriorating condition as she lies in bed alone. Armed with prior knowledge, readers’ trepidation and resignation are almost painful; yet we still pray for someone to realize the extent of her illness. There is very little description of Issy in these early chapters; she is a faceless four year old and readers are likely to visualise someone from their own lives instead. When the prophecy of the dust jacket is fulfilled, readers can’t help but imagine the loss of someone close. Issy’s final moments are extremely emotional both for her family and for us.
Each family member reacts differently to her death. Her father, Ian, is initially lost and unable to understand why God has allowed her to die but soon “his sorrow was contained again, soothed and wrapped in an assuaging bandage of scripture.” Ian knows that life is fleeting and that if he only follows the correct path they will be reunited with Issy in Heaven. He lives his religion to the letter, which is galling to his wife Claire who, as a convert, has tried hard to fit the mould, to “exchange her ‘I’ for their ‘we’”. Yet in the face of such a loss her faith crumbles. While Zippy agonises over her love for Adam; Alma is angry at the faith, at his father and at not having been kinder to his little sister. But it is the story of seven year old Jacob that is the most touching.
Through Jacob, Bray explores the difficulties of differentiating between real life, religion and fairy tales for a young child. Jacob is proud of the fact that he knows the difference, yet admits that it is “hard to work out how all the different bits of both worlds fit together”. When his father reveals to him that Father Christmas does not exist, the next logical question becomes “is there such a thing as Jesus?” Through Jacob’s innocence the author explores these difficult issues and conveys her own scepticism at the rigidity of her former faith.While an interesting portrait of life within a Mormon community, A Song for Issy Bradley’s best features are its tenderness and touching portrayal of a family struggling to reconcile death and strict religion in an increasingly secular world.