The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

The Translation of the Bones, Francesca Kay’s second novel, is a quiet book.

It paints pictures of lives, and it shows how those lives are changed by one event.

And it is a powerful book.

It says a great deal about the importance of faith and the huge significance of motherhood.

At the heart of the story is Mary-Margaret O’Reilly.  A young woman, a little slow-witted and very devout. Mary-Margaret is one of a team of ladies who regularly clean the Church of the Sacred Heart, near her home in Battersea, and that role is very important to her.

During one afternoon’s cleaning something happens that will have repercussions for all of those present. Mary-Margaret falls from a stepladder, breaking her wrist and hitting her head. As she falls she sees the eyes of a statue of Christ open, and his wounds bleed.

Word of what has happened spreads quickly, and the small church is beseiged.

Stories begin to unfold,

Mary-Margaret believes that she has been chosen, that she has been given a mission. Meanwhile Fidelma, her house-bound mother, waits at home, wholly dependent on her daughter for food and company.

Stella Morrison fought to become the second wife of a successful man. She won, but now her youngest child is at boarding school and she is lost. Alice Armitage feels the absence of her son too. She copes by keeping busy while her son fights in Afghanistan.

Father Diamond struggles to cope with the aftermath of Mary-Margaret’s miracle, and finds himself questioning his vocation.

Francesca Kay illuminates all of their hearts and minds. She drew me into their lives, and she made me understand their emotions, their hopes, their fears.

She used her setting brilliantly: the timeless church rituals set aginst mundane details of life in contemporary London. And the writing was a joy. Such a lovely turn of phrase, such a wonderful eye for a telling detail.

The Church of the Sacred Heart, the congregation, the locale came to life.

What happened was dramatic, but it felt natural, inevitable.

There were times when it was painful to read, when I wanted to look away. I couldn’t. I was involved, and I had to see things through to the end.

I’m glad that I did.

An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay

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“Write her life, they urged me, even at her graveside; noone but you should do it. Who better? You with your command of words, and besides, you were the closest.”

So begins Francesca Kay’s debut – a novel, written as a biography. Its subject is Jennet Mallow, a successful and acclaimed 20th century artist.

She grew up in Yorkshire in the 1920s, and learned at an early age that her artistic talent and dreams would set her apart from her family: her priest father, her resentful mother and her much more conventional sister.

Working as a land-girl in Cornwall during the war she encountered artistic communities for the first time and she realised that there was another way to live.

And so after the war she moved to London to go to art school. It was there that she met David Heaton, a rising star of the art world, and the man she would marry and have children with.

At first, David was at the centre of his social circle, while Jennet cast herself as his supporter,and struggled to balance the roles of wife, mother and artist in her own right.

But things changed. The family moved to Spain, in an attempt to escape the darkness and poverty of post war London. There Jennet found her inspiration and began to paint in earnest, while David lost his and began the descent into alcoholism and self-destruction.

And so it went on. Jennet’s star rose rises while David’s fell, and gradually thing fell apart. Life would never be easy for Jennet. There was always that balancing act, the difficulty of of living in a world dominated by men, and a world that did not judge men and women by the same standards.

The emotional truth of Francesca Kay’s story never falters and she uses language quite beautifully. However, the biographical style is sometimes a problem. I never doubted the truth of Jennet’s story but I did sometimes feel a little removed from it.

But it is the art that makes this book sing. Jennet’s story is rich with wonderful detailed descriptions of her art, in exquisite prose that really will paint pictures in your head.

“Ultramarine blue, Byzantine blue, cobalt, cerulean. Christening the sky with their precise richnesses of colour was like learning a new language, one she found she loved. She had not dared to think of art as a way of living. But now, here, suddenly, it struck her as the only way, the only way that she could say out loud what she knew she was worth…”

“This series is a kind of prayer, a glimpse of what infinity might look like. The shades of milky-white and grey, mothwing, oyster shell, sand, pale lilac, midnight-blue and inky black, are so subtle that their gradations can hardly be discerned, and yet it is clear from their slight stirrings and their iridescence where the air begins and where the water ends.”

To do that in a first novel is really quite extraordinary.

Library Loot

My public library has finally reopened. The walls and ceiling are now pale blue and, more importantly, I have three new books!

Here’s this week’s loot:

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An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay

“Jennet Mallow is born in Yorkshire in the 1920s but her interest in art and creativity alienates her from her family, her father who is a priest, her conventional sister and her emotionally stunted mother. Jennet moves to London in search of a more exciting life and finds it in her new environment and in the handsome and enigmatic figure of the painter David Heaton. When Jennet falls pregnant, her parents more or less force the two to marry. In the postwar austerity of the 1940s, the young couple struggles to make ends meet and Jennet finds that her home life is gradually eroding everything she has fought to achieve. Aware that David is becoming increasingly reliant on drink and tired of the dank and drab bedsit in which they live, Jennet suggests they move to Spain. There, the bright blue skies, warm air and sunlit beaches give the couple and their children a new lease of life. Jennet begins to paint again and an agent takes an interest in her work. But as Jennet’s own career begins to take off, her relationship with David sours and the two enter a destructive spiral with tragic consequences. Written in the form of a biography, An Equal Stillness is an outstanding debut, breathtaking in the poise and beauty of its language and craft.”

I wanted to read this ever since I saw it on the shortlist for the Orange New Writers Award. It looks absolutely wonderful!

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What To Do When Someone Dies by Nicci French

“‘This is not my world. Something is wrong, askew. It is a Monday evening in October. I am Ellie Falkner, 34 years old and married to Greg Manning. Although two police officers have just come to my door and told me he is dead . . . ’ It’s devastating to hear that your husband has died in a horrific car accident. But to learn that he died with a mystery woman as his passenger is torment. Was Greg having an affair? Drowning in grief, Ellie clings to Greg’s innocence, and her determination to prove it to the world at large means she must find out who Milena Livingstone was and what she was doing in Greg’s car. But in the process those around her begin to question her sanity … and her motive. And the louder she shouts that Greg might have been murdered, the more suspicion falls on Ellie herself. Sometimes it’s safer to keep silent when someone dies …”

Nicci French’s books have always been a bit hit and miss for me, but this one was shiney and new and the premise looked interesting, so I picked it up!

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The Housekeeper by Melanie Wallace

“When Jamie Hall finds a boy tied to a tree and cuts him loose, she can have no idea of the desperate chain of events her act of humanity will trigger. An orphaned teenage runaway who has fetched up with only her dog and her backpack in the lonesome town of her grandparents’ birth, Jamie becomes housekeeper to Margaret, a retired photographer. There she meets Galen, a trapper who has done a stretch inside and who now lives at a remove from life. Slowly, they come to realise that each has something the other craves. But when the feral boy Jamie releases, mute and crazed from all he has endured, sets out on a lethal spree, he is stalked by Harlan, a dangerously unhinged poacher who was once a childhood friend of Galen. As Harlan persuades himself that Jamie is sheltering the boy, these various stories of loss, redemption and pursuit become shackled together, and Jamie’s hard-won chance of security is plunged into peril.”

Another Orange book – this one was longlisted in 2007.

library-loot

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.