Friday, October 9, 2015

A Death in the Family: Review of Carys Bray's "A Song for Issy Bradley"

[This review originally appeared in 15 Bytes Magazine, May 2015]

A Song for Issy Bradley
Carys Bray
Ballantine Books (2014)
330 pp.

There’s a moment in A Song for Issy Bradley, Carys Bray’s luminous first novel (and 15 Bytes Book Award finalist this year), when a teenage Mormon girl named Zippy is asked at a party she’s not supposed to be at, “[I]f you weren’t already a member, would you join the Church?”
This is not only the question being asked of Latter-day Saint youth of the “millennial” set today, when religious orthodoxy of the Mormon kind seems no match for the information age; it was also the question that many boomers like myself asked—and are still asking—in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the stories of our faith began to fray while changing social mores, underscored by a rock ‘n’ roll beat, crept towards relativism and inclusive thinking.
What’s startling about Zippy being asked this question is that it’s happening in England where her family lives, where her dad is the bishop of the local ward and where her youngest sibling, of the book’s title, has just unexpectedly died at the tender age of 5.
Issy Bradley is the first novel I’m aware of that despite being so unabashedly, incontrovertibly steeped in the quaint religion of my childhood and my ancestors, has found an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly the book exists because of the faith, not unlike author Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev exists because of Orthodox Judaism. Bray’s book is evidence, of course, that “quaint” (to use a descriptor by the godfather of Mormon Letters, Levi Peterson) or not, the faith has nevertheless become a global phenomenon: America’s most successful indigenous religion. That this movement transplanted from New England and the Midwest to Utah is being reflected with such unvarnished urgency outside of the so-called “Mormon Corridor” is not only startling but moving.
I submit that this is a book that could not have been written in “Zion” (where Jews are considered “gentiles”) because it takes distance from the “mother ship” to see its contours in all its intractable complexity, including both its horrors as well as its graceful resolutions.
Ian Bradley is a Mormon from England who has married a convert, Claire, and proceeded to live the life that, if it weren’t for the family’s vernacular spun from the Queen’s English, could be in South Jordan, Utah. There are four children that Ian, as a schoolteacher, can’t adequately provide for with his wife at home; there’s the prohibitions that start with alcohol and tobacco but somehow exponentially expand to include a maddening (and lunatic) list of “no ways”; and, hugely, there is the penchant for performing: not only for “non-members” a-plenty, but to each other. (More on that later.)
In the hubbub of family / church life, no one seems to notice that Issy isn’t getting out of bed one morning. Claire is doing double-duty while Ian, the patriarch of not only the family but of the congregation, spends more time dealing with needy fellow Mormons than with his equally needy children and his increasingly exhausted wife. In fact, Ian is meeting his own driving need to be needed, to be pastoral. It’s his platform and power trip, and it rings so true to the reader who’s lived the life that it is painful to witness, even in prose.
When Issy dies, each of the remaining family members begin to fray, to question, to act out, and to reach for equilibrium through their own template based on where they are in life. Bray is in remarkable form here, each chapter delineating the inner workings of one character with distinctive psychology and even diction, alternating with the others throughout.
For prepubescent Jacob, the penultimate child, there is an obsession on resurrection—his younger sister’s to be exact. For his older brother Alma (“Al”), a teen hankering after football (soccer), which has been forbidden (one of those lunatic prohibitions that somehow come creeping into families of this tribe), it is battling with ruffians in the neighborhood who are no match, finally, for the apocryphal Three Nephites, who Al conveniently believes make an appearance. And for the oldest, Zippy, the girl who has been asked the question above as to whether she would choose the totalizing identity she’s been born to, it is about her burgeoning sexuality and the promise/specter of marriage. Will she be worthy? Will she be obedient? Will she find her one true soul mate for “celestial marriage”?
The author not only displays rhetorical craft, she has a stinging accuracy when it comes to sketching out the contemporary trappings of claustrophobic ward life, and that curious thing that has become nothing less than cultish–the notion that the irreducible unit of eternity is not God, nor the individual soul, but the nuclear family. For a Mormon of any stripe, this is embarrassing, hilarious, horrifying and touching stuff–all at the same time–which is why this is a game-changer for the literature of the Latter-day Saints. It’s more than just an expose (despite its virtues, think Martha Beck’s memoir Leaving the Saints) and it certainly isn’t the laughable novels routinely posited by Deseret Book as if it were a Pez dispenser of saccharine treats. But more telling than that, Issy Bradley is compelling narrative for the outsider who doesn’t know a Mormon from a mushroom.
The most interesting characters are the parents: Ian, the obedient ecclesiastical lay officer and Claire, the convert who, in her mind and in others (including her devout in-laws) just can’t get it right, retreating as she does to her dead daughter’s bed for weeks and abandoning the family altogether.
“What is she meant to learn from this experience,” she muses in third person at one point, the family slowly falling into ruins while ward members arrive at the door one after another with heavy casseroles.
Ian would answer the question with a list of virtues like the ones written on Sunday-school chalkboard each week, irrespective of the lesson topic: patience, faith, long-suffering, endurance . . . It’s easy for him, his thoughts traverse a one-way system, there’s no room for roundabouts of doubt or recalculations; once he settles on something it’s true and she mostly likes this about him, it’s what makes him so steadfast and loyal. When he decided he loved her she knew he wouldn’t ever change his mind; loving her became a fact of his existence, as veritable and infallible as scripture. He’s a man who sticks to the road of his experience, he doesn’t look left or right or back; he never rubbernecks or pulls over to glory in the wreckage of other people’s lives, he never gossips or points fingers; he calls encouragement as he passes those who’ve broken down, he throws a towrope to people in difficulty, but he always keeps to his designated route. There’s one truth, one way, and Ian is following it.
This story opens with Claire. It’s perhaps her story. But true to the fashion of this tribe, it is the family that is central, boundary-less — an industrial fusion of individual, group and church. There are no references outside the mechanical universe of the “Kingdom,” and God help the poor soul who leaves that place that is both the center of life and, at the same time, its distant horizon. The imperative in such a place, therefore, is to be righteous. And if you aren’t righteous, then you better perform righteousness, even, and most importantly, to yourself.
But leaving that place is what all of them do in A Song for Issy Bradley, with various outcomes. For Claire, her departure, even temporarily, takes her the furthest out, propels her existentially into a cosmos she does not now know, though once she did. And this is where Carys Bray shows not only her craft but her generosity of spirit. Whatever the Bradleys are, they are infinitely human. And though a creed will try as it might to set its believers indelibly apart from the “world”—to a chosen status of some kind—life has a way of being relentless, like the waves of the sea where this remarkable book both opens and closes. It’s a tortured but ultimately tender valentine from Mother England to the American religion that carried away tens of thousands of her children before returning to her shores again to stay as an established and seemingly ever-expanding faith. Fierce rectitude may send this little Anglo-Mormon family into a vortex of pain and frantic script-writing of the self, but whatever one says about religious fundamentalism of this kind, it is the family’s loyalty to each other that will bring them out in the end.
The question Zippy is asked at the beginning of the novel is by the son of the local Stake President–in Utah-speak, the leader of a Mormon diocese. By the end of this page-turner of multiple delights and a trenchant excavation of family and faith, “Adam” announces to the girl who is in love with him that he’s not going on the expected church mission for young men.
“Your dad will be so disappointed.”
“Will he let you live at home?”
“I hope so.”
“No one will want to marry you.”
“No one at church —so that’s about zero point three percent of the population.”
She just about manages to stop herself from saying, “it’s more than a percentage point, it’s me.” But you’ll still come to church won’t you? She asks. “You can’t leave completely.”
“You’ve just done a good job of explaining why I can’t stay,” he says gently.
It would seem Bray is saying that we are all born to a life. And that life is good enough, bad enough, and transforming enough for each of us, even Issy.


A Song for Issy Bradley
Carys Bray
Ballantine Books (2014)
330 pp.

Carys Bray was awarded the Scott Prize for her debut collection, Sweet Home. She lives in Southport, England, with her husband and four children. A Song for Issy Bradley is her first novel which is a finalist this year for the 15 Bytes Book Award for fiction.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finishing Touches on Dream House on Golan Drive

At the last stages of editing the manuscript to Dream House on Golan Drive. Working with a professional editor who is doing this kind of close reading is an incredible gift. It really makes you ask the hard questions about what your book is about, and how one can best tell the story. My thanks to the staff at Signature Books, especially right now, Editor Ron Priddis, for making this project so much better. The Advanced Reading Copies (ARC), for reviewers, should be available in about a week.

The good news is that I have two readings scheduled to date. The first is at the Utah Humanities Book Festival September 23, 2015 at The City Library (downtown Salt Lake City) at 7 pm. I'll be reading with poet Rob Carney. Thanks to the Book Festival director Michael McLane for the invitation.

The second reading scheduled thus far is at The King's English Bookshop, November 10, 2015 at 7 pm. At both places Dream House will be for sale, and there will be a signing. Thanks to Anne Holman and the entire staff at King's for their generosity. While the book is available online where you might expect it, I encourage readers to support their local independent book store.

Finally, I have a website up. You can find more information, including an interview about the release of Dream House on Golan Drive at

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I'm happy to report that the editing process for DREAM HOUSE ON GOLAN DRIVE with Signature Books is moving right along.

The release date may be slightly delayed from the original schedule (August 15, 2015), but . . . it should be shortly after that.

I've already been tapped by the Utah Humanities Book Festival for a reading in September (more on that later) and hopefully there will be a book launch in Salt Lake City which is famous for it's scrappy independent bookstores dedicated to local writers.

Meanwhile, here's a short interview of me talking about my forthcoming book. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Dream House on Golan Drive," New from Signature Books

Announcing my first book: Dream House on Golan Drive, forthcoming from Signature Books (Salt Lake City) August 2015.

It is the year 1972, and Riley Harley finds that he, his family, community, and his faith are entirely indistinguishable from each other. He is eleven. A young woman named Lucy claims God has revealed to her that she is to love with Riley's family. Her quirks are strangely disarming, her relentless questioning of their life incendiary and sometimes comical. Her way of taking religious practice to its logical conclusion leaves a strong impact on her hosts and propels Riley outside his observable universe and toward a trajectory of self discovery.

Set in Provo and New York City during the seventies and eighties, the story encapsulates the normal expectations of a Mormon experience and turns them on their head. The style, too, is innovative in how it employs "Zed," one of the apocryphal Three Nephites who with another immortal figure, the Wandering Jew of post-biblical legend, engage regularly in light-hearted banter and running commentary, animating the story and leavening the heartache with humor and tenderness.

Paperback | Fiction
300 pp. |  $24.95
Signature Books

Monday, December 15, 2014

Getting Back to Basics

This is my new personal mantra--the advice I would give everyone, especially our national government right now.

How did we get into the intractable place we have arrived as a country, as the human race?
1) We have not stood our ground, or even known what our values (as opposed to our "doctrine") are.
2) We have not acknowledged or negotiated the fundamentalism by which each of is gripped (that means me and you...all of us.)
3) We have not had the good sense or humanity to know that in public discourse and in governance, compromise is the only thing that will move us forward. In short, we refuse to compromise for the benefit of the collective. 

I am proposing a grass-roots movement. Our leaders are currently lost. They are beholden to what they think the public--their public--wants from them. (Again...that we identify the population as "publics" now, instead of a singular, collective "public" speaks to our dilemma.)

Stand Your Ground
Check Your Fundamentalism
Compromise for the Benefit of the Collective

So what do we want from our leaders: our Senate, our House of Representatives our state legislators, our governor and our president? Do we want a ship that is righted and mobile; that moves through the mighty ocean of our little lives with authority and grace?; do we have the pragmatic and mature view to understand that, despite the relentless drum-beat of consumerism--what Hollywood and Madison Avenue are saying--individuals have never gotten everything they wanted?

I submit that we have to learn to subdue self interest so that all of us, with each other, can cobble together a world and a life that we can grant our children and grandchildren with, if not assurance, then at least hope. 

How are each of us implicated in the disaster that has become our American civic self? 

I am reminded, again, of why I started this blog, and how often I have gone astray myself from what, in my gut, I realize is a truth borne out of my own brutality to others and myself: I am responsible in part for the disaster and the redemption of the world in which we are all citizens. As are each of us. I am part and parcel to the complaints I level, in face-to-face conversations at home and on the street, in the office, in social media, in published documents, in the e-forums that have become the new town square.

It's a little house we all live in. But we'll be fine if we can just learn to dance well with everyone else. So first ask yourself the questions: How does everything implicate me? In what way do I contribute to it all? I'll ask those questions too.

Stand Your Ground
Check Your Fundamentalism
Compromise for the Benefit of the Collective

In my next three posts, I'll try to address each of these steps listed above. I invite you to join the conversation. I want to hear your views, your questions, your concerns--all presented with civility, intelligence and, if not with the ever-elusive if not impossible cut-and-dried solution, then at least with a design for a way forward.

If you have something to say you're not allowed to say it through zingers just to win points. Here's Rule #1: State first how you are implicated in the problem before you start looking outward, and be prepared to place your comment in a context that will actually move the conversation--and potentially our society--forward. Rule #2: (see Rule #1).

As a people, we can set the standard for our leaders who appear to have lost their way.

I don't know if the ship of public discourse and governance can be righted. But I do know that the only way out of our current malaise is through it. What we have to work with is the evolved human impulse to communicate, to cooperate and to listen. 

Stand Your Ground
Check Your Fundamentalism
Compromise for the Benefit of the Collective

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Announcing Signature Wedding Ceremonies

What does a writer and editor do who needs more cash and is a cracker jack at events?

He gets ordained. That's right, gang. If you need a wedding officiant I am currently available. I do traditional weddings (with or without mention of deity), unusual weddings in unusual places, and I also am honored to marry same-sex partners.

I'm located in Salt Lake City but am willing to travel within reason. My first two ceremonies will be free. (If you're happy with my services, I'll ask you to recommend me.) 

So pony up and get hitched. 

Contact me through my blog or at [click here]  

"Your wedding ceremony is the signature of your love." 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dave's Editing and Writing Services

I hope you're enjoying my "Little House" blog. I've recently joined Thumbtack offering my professional services as an editor and writer.

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