The Translation of the Bones – Francesca Kay

Francesca Kay won the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2009 for her first novel, An Equal Stillness, a fictional biography of a female artist. 

In The Translation of the Bones she explores new territory, setting her story in a quiet Roman Catholic parish in Battersea, London – well, perhaps things are not as they seem and the peace and calm belies a whirlwind of emotions and tumultuous questions about faith, organised religion, relationships especially those between mothers and their offspring.

Mary Margaret O’Reilly is a devout young parishioner, spending most of her time cleaning the Sacred Heart Church.  She is described by the parish priest as a “duine de Dhia” which literally means “child of God” but which used to be the Irish term for a child with special needs.  Whilst cleaning one particular statue of Jesus on the cross, she witnesses a “miracle” and she believes the statue is actually bleeding.  Religious hysteria and frenzy ensue and the church suddenly becomes the focus of manic religious fervour.  Indeed the story reminded me of the many reported sightings of “moving statues” in Irish churches during the mid-80s – folk are always hungry for examples of modern “miracles”.

However, the “miracle” is merely a backdrop to the stories played out by local parishioners including Margaret Mary’s reclusive mother, Fidelma who is confined to her high-rise flat where she reminisces about maltreatment by the “holy” nuns whilst waiting for her daughter to feed her.  Stella Morrison feels the removal of her son to boarding school like the cutting of  the cord, Alice Armitage keeps herself busy tending to the needs of elderly parishioners in an effort to distract herself from the pain of having her son fighting in Afghanistan.  After a decade in the priesthood, Father Diamond, still finds himself questioning his vocation.  One would be forgiven for thinking that the Sacred Heart parish is indeed in a “state of chassis”.

I really enjoyed this novel – there are times when loud and brash does the trick for me but I also appreciate those quiet, unassuming books which gradually reveal little gems of characterisation and exploration of themes, here, the painful nature of motherhood, the role of faith in our lives, the frightening aspects of change.  The lack of chapters, speech marks could sound alarm bells amongst prospective readers but I can assure you that the prose flows so smoothly that I didn’t even notice their absence until I finished reading the novel and flicked through it – she’s that skilful as a writer!  Whilst reading I was reminded of the writing of Brian Moore (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) which is another reason I’m looking forward to reading more from the pen of Francesca Kay.

  • Share/Bookmark

Leave a Reply