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.)
As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!