Giveaway now closed.
A Song for Issy Bradley is the story of a family’s grief following the death of their youngest member. The family consists of mum Claire, dad Ian, teenagers Zippy and Alma, seven-year-old Jacob and four-year-old Issy.
It’s Jacob’s birthday. As Claire makes him pancakes, the ‘phone rings and Ian is summoned to help Sister Anderson, a request that he feels unable to refuse being bishop of the local Mormon church. This leaves Claire to deal with organising Jacob’s birthday party, a party she’d said could only take place if Ian helped. She calls upon Zippy to get Issy ready while she shops and then Alma to check on her while the party takes place. However it is clear from the first time we met Issy that she is very unwell:
Issy wakes up with achy arms. When she opens her eyes, they are full of lightning icicles. She tries to get out of bed and discovers that there isn’t much breath in her tummy. She wonders if part of her has popped in the night, like a balloon.
By the time Claire realises just how ill Issy is (she has meningitis), she knows she’s going to die.
Each member of the family reacts differently to Issy’s death. Claire’s feelings are introduced before the key event of the book takes place with the prologue ‘Footprints in the Sand’. In it, Claire dreams about walking on the beach with the Lord:
They walk until He stops and presses a gentle hand to her arm.
‘Please come back. I love you.’
Immediately we are aware that Claire is questioning her faith – the title of the prologue refers to the well known poem about there being one set of footprints in the sand because the Lord carried the believer when times were most trying – she does not feel that she has been supported when she needed it most.
The Lord here could be a metaphor for Claire’s husband, Ian. Ian was born into a Mormon family; Claire, however, converted when her relationship with Ian became serious and it’s clear that she sometimes struggles with the teachings of the church, both in terms of the way Ian deals with Issy’s death and with regards to their eldest daughter, Zippy. It is Al, though, that sums Ian up perfectly (if a little harshly):
He’s one of the only people Al knows who is the same in real life as he is at church. It’s as if Dad lives in the overlapping bit of one of those Venn diagrams, straddling both worlds. Other people adapt, they step from circle A to circle B, they act normal in real life and accessorise their Sunday clothes with holy words and best manners, but Dad is unchanging. He exists in a perfect egg of divine assurance.
Zippy’s character serves to illustrate one of the problems with this – the way woman are expected to behave in the eyes of the church. Zippy is of the age where she is being instructed on becoming a wife and mother. She’s expected to wear clothes that don’t show any unnecessary flesh in order for her never to be what Sister Campbell calls:
…walking pornography. I’m sure none of you want to be responsible for putting bad thoughts into men’s heads. Please think about the men.
Zippy’s thinking about the men, alright. At home she often has her head in a Jane Austen novel and at church and school, her eyes are on Adam Carmichael, son of President Carmichael. This allows Bray to highlight the differences in the expectations placed on the boys without loudly signposting her intentions and taking the reader away from the story. (Although in one wonderful scene, Claire demonstrates the hypocrisy of their teachings with a piece of chewing gum. It’s worth buying the book for those few pages alone.)
The other children are also given their own storylines and distinctive personalities. Alma constantly questions his father’s teachings in that typical cheeky teenage boy fashion. He’s angry at Ian for stopping him playing football once he began to consider it as a career option. Jacob just wants his sister back and, following the teachings about miracles, attempts to bring about one of his own.
Bray gives each character their own voice within a third person subjective narrative. It is clear from the vocabulary and sentence structures whose point of view we’re seeing things from and it’s Bray’s choices here that really bring these people to life. The children, in particular, are so well rendered; Zippy and Alma could be children I’ve taught and Jacob’s so adorable I spent the entire novel wanting to pick him up and hug him.
The book’s cleverly structured to move – seemingly effortlessly – between the characters; the decision to place Issy’s short paragraphs at the end of each of the first few chapters is a brilliant way to show us that she’s an afterthought, literally hanging on for dear life. It’s testament to Bray’s talent that I found myself sobbing when Issy died, although she’s only present in the narrative for such short periods of time.
But my favourite thing about the book is how Bray uses humour in a way that lifts what could’ve been such a bleak book without trivialising Issy’s death. There’s a fantastic scene – both heartbreaking and hilarious – that involves a bird, which I shall leave you to discover yourself but I’ll give you a taste with this from Issy’s funeral:
[Jacob] wanted to say he was fine, he wanted to tell her to go away, but his bottom lip began to wobble and it wouldn’t stop, even when he bit it quite hard. Sister Anderson helped him to his feet. She folded her arms around him and pulled him into her squashy tummy. Her dress was dark and velvety. His tears soaked into its softness as she patted his head gently and said, ‘It’s such a shame.’
When he had finished crying he stepped away from her and a rope of snot stretched from his nose to the front of her dress, like a bridge.
I had the privilege of first reading A Song for Issy Bradley back in October. I tell you this not to sound like an arse but so I can justify my use of a reviewer’s cliché, the one about characters staying with you; right up until very recently I’ve been discussing this book with people, talking about events and even lines that I could recall, without effort, months after reading. Cary’s Bray is a very talented writer indeed and A Song for Issy Bradley deserves to be an enormous success.
I’ve been desperate to get my friends to read this book for months, now they can and one of you lucky people can too. The lovely publicity team at Hutchinson books sent me a hardback copy of A Song for Issy Bradley that you can win by leaving a comment below. As always, I’m happy to accept worldwide entries. Competition closes at 12pm UK time, Sunday 22nd June. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.
Edit: Thanks for all your entries into the giveaway. As usual, I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of entry:
1 – outonthefringes
2 – Jacqui
3 – Rebecca Foster
4 – Sam
5 – My Book Strings
6 – Claire Fuller
7 – Claire Stokes
8 – Rhonda
9 – JJT
10 – Anne Coates
11 – Ann Bradley
12 – Cath Martin
13 – Ametista
14 – Peter Raynard
15 – Claire ‘Word by Word’
16 – Samantha Bates
17 – Debra Brown
18 – Julie Williams
19 – theabhishekkr
And the random generator says:
Congratulations Anne, there’s an email on its way to you. Hope you enjoy the book.
Thanks to everyone for entering.
Thanks to Hutchinson for the review and giveaway copies.