August 29, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Carys Bray's remarkable debut A Song for Issy Bradley is a powerful novel of faith and family.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"An absorbing, beautifully written debut novel with surprising moments of humor."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
A Song For Issy Bradley is about a Mormon family in the aftermath of an unexpected bereavement. I grew up in a Mormon family, and so when I became interested in exploring themes of doubt and faith in a novel, it made sense to use the religion of my childhood as a backdrop. There are moments of intense sadness in the novel, but there are also moments of hope and humour.
Come, Come Ye Saints – The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
I listened and re-listened to the stories of the Mormon pioneers as I grew up. The stories were inspirational and poignant, but it seemed to me that their constant repetition sometimes encouraged a dismissive, platitudinous response to tragedy – 'The pioneers faced much worse difficulties than you…' Come, Come Ye Saints is the ultimate pioneer hymn, full of rousing, stimulating crescendos. But if you attempt to distill the hymn's message into a few words, you end up with something like this: Don't be afraid! Keep going! Everything will be okay! What if someone dies? Don't worry! Everything will still be okay! And suddenly the comfort offered by the song is somewhat superficial. Ian Bradley, father and Mormon Bishop, faces a similar problem as he attempts to console his family; when he tries to distill his conviction into words, he is left with trite, inadequate sound bites.
You'll Never Walk Alone – Gerry and the Pacemakers
Fourteen year old Alma Bradley loves football (soccer) as much as his father Ian loves religion. It's Alma's dream to play for Liverpool Football Club. 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is Liverpool Football Club's anthem, but it's also a song that resonates with Alma personally during the course of the novel. Alma's parents are wrapped up in their own grief and as a result he spends a great deal of the novel 'walking alone.' Eventually, Brother Rimmer, an older member of the local Mormon congregation, steps in. His advice to Alma echoes the sentiment in 'You'll Never Walk Alone' ("walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart"). "Anyone can be brave for five minutes or an hour or two. The bravery no one talks about is the hardest bravery of all. When you get up in the morning even though you'd rather be dead, that's brave."
Lead Kindly Light – James Conlee
Mormons often dress their dead relatives before burial. It's seen as a final act of service for the deceased and is usually described as a special, peaceful experience. In the novel, sixteen year old Zipporah and her mother Claire are supposed to dress Issy, but Zipporah finds it difficult. Claire suggests that Zipporah could sing, instead. She sings Lead Kindly Light. The message of the hymn is similar to that of Come, Come Ye Saints – keep going through the darkness and eventually the dawn will come – but it's more contemplative, poetic and nuanced; the underlying sadness of the song isn't acknowledged by a brief drop in volume and a perfunctory slowing of tempo, it's built into the music and the words.
Free Fallin' – Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Zipporah Bradley is grieving for her sister, but she's also in love for the first time, which makes her doubly vulnerable. I think of her when I hear Free Fallin'. Like the girl in the song, Zipporah is good, but it's unclear whether Adam, the boy she loves, is also good. The line about loving Jesus and America makes me smile. Mormons believe that Zion will be built on the American continent – as a British Mormon I too grew up loving Jesus and America, something that seems rather funny as I look back.
The Miracle – Queen
This song lists things people sometimes describe as miraculous: rain, IVF, the Golden Gate Bridge, The Tower of Babel etc. As a child I heard lots of miraculous stories, some were prosaic and involved the finding of lost car keys, but others were startling – I remember one story in which a man was (allegedly!) brought back to life. Seven year old Jacob Bradley believes in miracles. He thinks if he just tries hard enough, he might be able to engineer a miracle that will mend his broken family.
Losing My Religion – REM
This song spoke to me as I stopped believing in Mormonism. I like the way it captures the feeling of being both cornered and forced into the spotlight; of not knowing whether you've said enough or too much. A Song for Issy Bradley isn't a novel about losing or leaving religion – I didn't want it to be my story – but it certainly addresses the renegotiations that are sometimes necessary when faith is challenged.
Say Something – Christina Aguilera
Following Issy's death, Claire retreats to bed and gradually withdraws from daily life. Ian determinedly carries on, spouting aphorisms, certain that things will get better. In the evenings he sits beside the bed and talks to Claire, but it becomes increasingly difficult for him to penetrate her silence. Eventually, Ian realises that it's going to take more than faux cheerfulness and trite maxims to pull his family back together – he's going to have to act.
Here We Are Together – Traditional
A Song for Issy Bradley was originally called Here We Are Together, but the publisher didn't think it was a memorable title, and people who weren't familiar with the song kept getting the words in the wrong order – We Are Together Here, Together We Are Here, and so on. Jacob Bradley sings Here We Are Together at various points during the story. Although the novel addresses themes of doubt and faith, and examines the mechanics of miracles, I think that A Song for Issy Bradley is, above all, a story about family and togetherness.
Carys Bray and A Song for Issy Bradley links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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