The Bradley family is a family like any other, at first sight at least: Zippy is 16, in love with Jane Austen and a boy in her class, Al is thirteen and wants to play football in a professional club Jacob is 7, their mum is overwhelmed, their father Ian spends a lot of time and dedication at work. But they are also Mormons, and therefore believe that their living prophet has seen God, that tea is not allowed, Jacob believes in miracles, and Ian believes you should seek any opportunity to help other families see the truth.
So when a tragedy strikes, and their youngest daughter, Issy, dies (not really a spoiler as it is the beginning of the book) they all try to cope in their own ways with their faith, their grief, the difficulty in believing both in a caring, benevolent God and in his action in this tragedy. Issy’s mum is overpowered by grief and stays in her daughter’s bed. Ian goes on as before, trying very hard to lead a normal life again, Al is rebelling against God and his dad the latter representing the former, and Jacob awaits a miracle.
This is a gentle, sorrowful book, and it explores grief, in its various manifestations, incredibly well. There is sadness, but also humour, and a lot of compassion for the characters, even the most frustrating ones, the ones that make no compromise with faith and dogma – even in the name of love. You cannot help but feel frustrated, many times, with Ian’s church beliefs and the consequences they have on his daily life, but you also get to see him at his most vulnerable, at his most human, and that is what I felt was particularly subtle, even more so knowing the author grew up in a Mormon family, and later left the church.
Due to the author background, of course, it is also a very true rendering of what it must be to grow in such a religious community, with vivid descriptions of the teenagers trying to lead a normal life that does not betray their church. And the empathy it is written with makes it hard to let them be, the Bradleys. You want to comfort them, take them with you, know how they’ll cope in the future. But, and I suppose as an allegory of faith, you don’t have all the answers, by the end. You get to create the rest of the story, with your own faith in each of the characters.