'Song for Issy Bradley' a meditation on faith, grief, family

A SONG FOR ISSY BRADLEY. By Carys Bray. Ballantine Books. 352 pages. $26.

In her debut novel, "A Song for Issy Bradley," British author Carys Bray tells the story of the Bradleys, a Mormon family living on the coast of England, that's struck by a devastating loss in the first pages. In each chapter, Bray examines this death through the eyes of a different family member.

We lose ourselves in the compelling stories of 16-year-old Zippy, 14-year-old Al, 7-year-old Jacob and their parents, Claire and Ian, as they each grapple with their faith.

Ian Bradley is a determinedly optimistic church bishop; his wife, Claire, who converted when they got married, is more skeptical than her husband, but together their faith is a defining feature of their lives.

Jacob digs up a skeleton of a bird he buried in the backyard to test the theory of resurrection. He believes that if he prays hard enough the bird will come back to life, and so will his sister.

"With God all things are possible," Bray writes. "God helps those who help themselves and He loves a tryer: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Remembering all this about God makes Jacob feel ever-so-slightly better."

Zippy is forced to navigate the complexities of first love without her mother, and Al, who would rather be playing football than going to church, shirks his duties and gets beaten up by a group of footballers. Without his baby sister (who "always had dribble on her chin and half the time she stank of poo - but she noticed something good in him, something no one else could see"), Al feels invisible to the rest of the world.

As in Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," sorrow is transformed into something both beautiful and wretched in Bray's deft hands. She writes, "The house is full of sadness. It's packed into every crevice and corner like snow. There are bottomless drifts of it beside Issy's beanbag chair in the living room."

As the family struggles to go about their daily lives, Claire climbs into Issy's bed and refuses to get out. "She didn't join the family for dinner. She didn't wash the dishes or bring the laundry in off the line; she lay in bed rehearsing years of tentative, often reluctant, obedience and pondered the dimensions of a proportionate punishment."

Claire's chapters are the most difficult to read. Her inability to get out of bed is frustrating, but begs the question: How long are we allowed to mourn? When is it OK to stand up again, to get dressed, to eat, to move forward?

"She opens the fridge and then closes it; she doesn't want to eat. Every so often she gives in and grabs a cookie, but when she thinks of Issy lying under the mulching, autumn-heavy soil, each bite feels like a betrayal. Her stomach growls and she ignore it."

Issy's departure from their lives leaves the family vulnerable. Ian is forced to manage the household and minister to his congregation, all the while keeping Claire's collapse a shameful secret. Giving up is not in his vocabulary.

"Pioneer women didn't refuse to stop walking, they didn't lie down on the plains when their children died. ... He has to keep going. He is so tired. He looks back over his shoulder at Jacob and Issy's room. He'd like to sleep too, but someone's got to stand and face this."

The daughter of devout Mormon parents and a mother of four children, Bray is uniquely qualified to illustrate the power of family and faith. In the end, it is family who comes to Claire's rescue; pulling her out of the darkness into the wavering light.

Reviewer Amy Mercer is director of communications and marketing at the Gibbes Museum of Art.