Tuesday, April 10, 2012

book review: The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

The backstory: The Translation of the Bones is on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist. Francesca Kay's first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the 2009 Orange New Writers Award.

The basics: Set in a small Catholic church in Battersea, this novel features a priest and the three women who volunteer to clean and care for the church: Mrs. Armitage, Stella Morrison, and Mary-Margaret O'Reilly, a somewhat simple and somewhat disturbed young woman of deep faith and a questionable grip on reality.

My thoughts: This novel opens with Mary-Margaret feeling a religious urge to deep clean Jesus on a cross in a side chapel. She injures herself while cleaning him and believes the statue bleeds and looks at her. Kay presented the four main characters well in the beginning, and this crucial scene, which forms the basis for the novel, leaves the reader wondering what exactly did happen to Mary-Margaret and where her reality connects with our shared reality.This scene sets the stage for many questions of faith and belief the novel explores.

The character of Mary-Margaret fascinated me. The reader learns more about her, and her housebound mother, as the novel goes on. It's clear all is not quite well either of them, but the realities of their lives unfold slowly, and I was fascinated by the lives of both women, their relationship with one another, and their views of the world. Simultaneously, Father Diamond, Mrs. Armitage and Stella also narrate, and we glimpse inside their worlds. When Mary-Margaret shares her experience with her nurse at the hospital, the church becomes a tourist destination as Catholics flock to the site of a perceived miracle.

I confess: if I were given this book to read without knowing the author, I would assume a man wrote it because I had such trouble connecting with Mrs. Armitage and Stella. I often had to remind myself which one was which because I didn't think either woman was particularly well-developed or likable. I fully admit my bafflement with modern Catholics plays into this feeling, but I also think Kay intended the reader to react this way. These characters all play around their ideas of faith, reality and belief. For me, the behavior of Stella and Mrs. Armitage were more confusing and baffling than that of Mary-Margaret. This perspective raises some fascinating ideas about religion:
"Mrs. Armitage glanced at her. As a rule she was rather scornful of the conspicuously devout, the supplicants who knelt in front of statues with their hands clasped and their lips moving; they made her think of the Pharisees, strutting through the temple."
Kay has created an intentionally disarming world, and while it is critical of the church, it is also understanding. This duality was always shrouded in an air of mysteriousness. The story will feel incredibly different based on which character the reader most identifies with. These events all unfold during Lent, when it's tradition to cover the statues. The tourists, uninterested in actually worshiping in the church but longing to witness the miracle of a bleeding statue, irk Father Diamond, who takes to locking the church to keep them out. His actions are both hypocritical and completely understanding in the situation. Again, how closely the reader see this situation impacts her perspective.

Reading this novel during Lent was particularly moving, but I still couldn't get behind its ultimate lack of clarity. As Stella and Mrs. Armitage continued to be featured equally with Mary-Margaret, whom I wish would have been more of the novel's focus, it became clear a unifying experience would bring the trio together at the novel's end. I wanted Kay to explore the novel's themes more. This novel felt underdeveloped at times, although I do believe that was Kay's intended restraint. Many of these issues are addressed in Jodi Picoult's novel, Keeping Faith. Perhaps because that novel still resonates with me, this one didn't feel as fresh.

Favorite passage: "When in doubt we turn to Shakespeare. So much safer than the Koran or the Bible."

The verdict: While I was fascinated by Kay's themes in this novel, it never really came together for me in a satisfying way. Her writing is lush, her setting was intriguing, but the uneven characters hindered my enjoyment, and, ultimately, diminished her strong theme and story.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 222 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2012
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Translation of the Bones from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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14 comments:

  1. From the way you've described this book, and your reaction to it, I would have to say that I am very intrigued by it. My father grew up Catholic and at one point was considering becoming a priest, and the intricacies of this religion have always held a little mystique for me. Though I would love to read this one, I am also concerned about the lack of clarity in the characters, but think that the allure of the subject outweighs my misgivings. Excellent and amazing review today! I need to see if I can find this one!

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    1. Zibilee--I find the intricacies of Catholicism fascinating too, but I admit my fascination also comes with bafflement in current day. I'm curious, too, if the issue with the characters was unique to me--they seemed quite similar (and quite different from me), but I wonder if someone more in tune (or even sympathetic) to contemporary Catholic women would feel the same way.

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  2. I am a recent Catholic convert so the subject matter definitely interests me. I am sorry to hear that the book didn't quite live up to its potential though.

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    1. Lola--as a Catholic, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one! It's a fascinating novel, but I think I'm enjoying discussing it more than I enjoyed reading it!

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  3. I agree, something about this book meant that I just liked it rather than loved it. I thought Father Diamond finding his faith again was well done though, and really felt for Mary Margaret's mother.

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    1. Sam--I liked Father Diamond's faith journey too. I thought it was nice to compare him with the other characters. I felt for Mary Margaret's mother too--she and MM were the most intriguing parts of this novel for me.

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  4. I think that is one of the creepiest covers on a book I have ever seen!

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    1. I suppose it is a little creepy! I expected it to be historical from the title and cover and was surprised to find a contemporary story!

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  5. Sounds like this book really had a lot of potential. That opening scene is interesting.

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    1. Jenny--it did have potential, and in some ways it lived up to it, but perhaps the opening scene led me to believe it would do so differently so I was unsatisfied. Regardless, it's one worth reading.

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  6. I admire your perseverance to finish the Orange Prize longlists! I haven't been counting but have you finished all of them yet?

    This book overall didn't excite any readers who review it. Thanks for the review.

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    1. JoV--I've only managed 11 of the 20 longlisted so far, but I'll be focusing on the shortlist soon, then trying to finish those last few Orange titles.

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  7. I recall reading Matts review on this one and went out and purchased the Kindle version --haven't tackled it yet. We can compare notes later -- thanks for sharing Carrie.

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    1. Diane--I would love to discuss this one with you! It's one ripe for discussion.

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!