September 16, 2011 10:05 pm

The Translation of the Bones

Francesca Kay’s emotional tale lays bare a congregation’s lives

Francesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, told the story of a fictional postwar painter with a selfish husband, two children and doubts about her ability to have a family and make art.

There are no artists in Kay’s second novel, The Translation of the Bones, but here, too, are selfishness, children and vocational doubt.

A Catholic church in Battersea provides the setting for the characters who all live nearby but would not otherwise meet. The main figures include an acting priest, Father Diamond, who is having doubts about the value of his mission. Stella Morrison is the Mrs Dalloway-ish wife of an ambitious banker-turned-Conservative MP (“armoured from birth by money and privilege”), whose greatest regret is to have sent her youngest son to boarding school. And then there is Mary-Margaret O’Reilly, a simple-minded 33-year-old living with a monstrous, housebound mother who sees that they are “less like mother and daughter than like prisoners serving out life sentences in a double cell”.

It is passive Mary-Margaret, though, who kicks off the novel’s events by having a fall and seeing, she claims, the statue of Christ open his eyes.

Kay sets the weight and timelessness of the church setting – it takes a few pages to realise we’re in the present day – against the preoccupations that the characters try to leave outside. She also plays games with language and tone, skilfully crash-landing the long, periodic sentences in paragraphs of interior monologue with the characters’ quicker, more banal thoughts: what kind of Body Shop product, Mary-Margaret wonders, is best for cleaning the figure of Christ? In a hospital, Father Diamond thinks of the parable of Lazarus but wishes he were not visiting the genito-urinary ward, and Stella dismisses the guests at her husband’s “kitchen suppers” as “a mixture of old friends, the more attractive neighbours, political journalists, and anyone else who had influence”.

Kay bravely winds high-flown phrasing around the bones of a melodramatic plot. Taken out of context, a sentence like “Father Diamond knew the fear of the diver on the edge of a springboard, of a dancer in the wings waiting for his call” might seem overblown, but it works because Kay has a good ear.

The novel covers a five-week timespan and although the plot holds surprises, it doesn’t feel gimmicky. When Mary-Margaret finds out something shocking, it’s shocking for the reader, too; when she acts on her finding, it feels like a natural development.

An Equal Stillness won Kay the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. The faith-and-family subject matter of her second book could make The Translation of the Bones feel rather old-fashioned. Yet, though Kay’s novel is emotional, it’s not sentimental and it never lingers on the spot. This combination of feeling and structural restraint seems rather new, or just unfamiliar.

The Translation of the Bones, by Francesca Kay, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£12.99, 240 pages

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