Review: A Song For Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

71pTGcqw86L._SL1334_Reviewed by Rebecca, friend of the blog and FMH old-timer.

First impressions are good: the dust jacket is lovely and textured and includes praise from authors such as Nick Hornby. It’s the kind of book that feels nice to hold and is inviting. This is not some cheap-o Mormon novel.

British author Carys Bray — once a devout Mormon who “replaced religion with writing” — tells the story of the Bradleys, a Mormon family in the north of England. Dad is the local Mormon bishop, mum is starting to have questions about her faith. Disaster strikes with the death of their youngest child, Issy. The story follows each member of the family and how they deal with their grief.

A Song for Issy Bradley is Carys Bray’s first novel, written as a part of her PhD. In some ways this is obvious, as the writing takes a while to warm up. The characters, however, are well-drawn in the short time before the death of Issy, which is important and allows the reader to be able to empathise with them as the aftermath of the family tragedy unfolds.

For me, there were two main components of the novel: the handling of grief and the presentation of the family’s Mormon-ness.

The portrayal of the various family members’ grief is compelling. Issy’s seven year old brother, Jacob, has the innocent faith of a child that a miracle will happen and tries to test this. Seventeen year old Zippy awkwardly experiences grief alongside her first romantic feelings. Alma wants to play football instead of being at church and battles with feelings of guilt about not being nice to Issy when she was sick. The parents — Ian and Claire — react very differently. Ian throws himself into work and church whilst Claire shuts down and hides from the world. Battling with her grief, regret, and negative feelings about church, she spends most days in Issy’s bed. The descriptions of the raw emotions you would expect in the face of such a tragedy do a wonderful job creating empathy for the characters. My heart broke as I could too easily imagine myself reacting the same way as Claire if anything happened to one of my own children.

Bray’s treatment of the Mormon factor in the family at times felt both uncomfortable and a little unfair. Uncomfortable, as I recognised many of the cringe-inducing behaviours Mormons display. As someone like Bray who is no longer active in the church, I saw many behaviours that are typical, but also some that may be true of a only a small minority of Mormons. For example, Ian misses his son’s birthday party to go visit a ward member. This is not someone I have seen, though I don’t discount they exist; it just felt a little unbalanced towards the negative in its portrayal of the characters’ Mormonism. This may be Bray’s own strict Mormon autobiography coming through in her writing.

Overall, a brave and powerful first novel and an interesting portrayal of a particular (British) Mormonism. Based on Issy Bradley, I’d definitely want to read anything else Bray writes.


  1. Thanks for this review, Rebecca. I think of you often and hope you’re well!

  2. Hi Rebecca, I think this is pretty much spot on. Overall, I thought the book was excellent and challenging. But also agree that it was a little unfair and not necessarily an accurate portrayal of British Mormonism. However, there is much to recommend in the book and I would definitely try Bray again.

  3. I read the book a couple of months ago and pretty much had the same reaction as you did. Her treatment of Mormon culture bordered on caricature at times, but the way she imagines a devout Mormon family trying to cope with the sudden loss of a young child is compelling.

    One of the most enjoyable parts was the way she excoriates those who feel that the best way to comfort a family in these circumstances is to slip them little pieces of paper containing verses of scripture or tell them that “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Also, the faith crisis experienced by the mother, who is a convert, was portrayed beautifully.

    I would go so far as to say that the book was “faith-promoting,” which seems a bit odd since the author acknowledges that she is no longer active in the church. I don’t mean to imply that non-Mormons or inactive Mormons can’t or wouldn’t write something that it is faith-promoting; rather, it struck me as a bit incongruous that she would do so in the context of a religion she apparently no longer espouses. But I’m glad she did.

  4. I’m from the stake over from where Carys grew up. While the Bishop-missing-sons-birthday might sound a bit intense to some, I relate a lot to it; I feel like in the UK we get a very potent import of Utahn mega-mormon culture that sometimes lags behind what’s actually happening in Utah. For example, we got heavy anti birth control talks well after Utah opted for the softer ‘it’s between you and God’ ideas. I feel like in my stake, it was very much the tithing-before-rent, church-before-anything vibe and that part of the story didn’t strike me as too caricature’y. Just sad.

  5. With GA on this, though I grew up in a different stake. It didn’t come across as a caricature to me either.

  6. Parsing Rebecca, I imagine she means it is “unfair” if this is seen as the only Mormonism on offer in Britain. She did not use the term “caricature” and admits that there are Mormons out there like this. Obviously the bishop’s zeal is balanced by others even in his own family.

  7. My apologies. That’s what happens when I don’t comment for several hours after reading…
    Still, as I pointed out in my own review, non-family members in the book are shown through lens of the family members with whom they interact. They were all characters familiar to me in some form or other. And you’re right in saying the bishop’ zeal was balanced by others, the stake president came across as a much more relaxed character from the point of the view of the teenage son.
    In her podcast interview with Gina Colvin the author mentions her own experience with the loss of a child, and how at the time her response was the one she gives the bishop in the story.

  8. It is truly weird to see British Mormonism unveiled like this, I suppose.

  9. Thanks for all your comments. I never did say they were caricatures, but at times seemed a one sided negative view of Mormons. I think I was fairly balanced, indicating I don’t doubt these portrayals to be true, especially since I found myself cringing at seeing some of the uber Mormon-ness qualities that I recognised from my own wards growing up. But I’ve also seen many Mormons who always put their family before church, unlike the father in the story.

    Anyway, the Mormon section of my review was shorter than the section on the characters and the descriptions of grief. This is where the book excels and what kept me reading.

  10. Thanks for this review. I felt pretty much the same way: compelling reading and a lot that I recognized but, yes, a little unfair as a portrayal of Mormon-ness. In this story, the family’s religion feels oppressive, and although I suppose we’ve all had that sense at one time or another, still, there’s a lot to be said about the comfort that comes from faith and from being part of a caring, compassionate community. That didn’t appear. And since the thing that separates this book from other novels in which people lose children is the family’s religious affiliation, since that’s such a key part (and the reason we’re discussing this book at all) it felt one-sided. Was it the author’s experience? Maybe. Was it representative? I’m going to say no.

    Oh, and for the record: I’ve heard about the chewed gum demonstration, also the bruised petals, also the board nailed full of holes, also the cake filled with dirt, but I’ve never actually seen one done — nor have I ever ever EVER heard of wearing wedding dresses to mutual. Oy! And we had plenty of firesides and lessons on getting an education; it wasn’t all about marriage. I will admit, though, that Sister Valentine’s thinking she’s destined to marry the bishop — well, THAT I’ve seen. More than once. Poor dear.

  11. A compelling counter-example to this work of fiction portraying the way the Mormon faith intersects with the loss of a child might be the factual memoir of a woman who lost a child but found her Mormon faith to be a truly saving aspect of her life that helped her, her husband, and the rest of her family through the trauma of the loss through the community of the saints and the doctrines of the faith they shared. See Global Mom, A Memoir by Melissa Dalton-Bradford.

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