The Deepest Form of Terror – ‘The Translation of the Bones’ by Francesca Kay

bonesThe Translation of the Bones is a peculiar but poetic novel. Looking at it simplistically it fails to deliver on its promise, but on further reflection, it is a novel of great subtlety.

Francesca Kay does not neatly tie up all of her threads.  There is no neat conclusion. Like life, it’s a sprawl of half resolved issues, unanswered questions and the ever-present threat of tragedy. Those who like their novels to have a beginning middle and end, may find this novel discomfiting.  If you’re happy with an open end, then there is much to admire and enjoy here.

At the heart of the novel is faith. The narrative centres around a Catholic church in Battersea, and various members of its congregation. The novel opens with a plain, simple woman cleaning a statue in the church. Mary-Margaret believes she has witnessed a miracle, blood pouring from Christ’s wounds. In her excitement she stumbles, falls and hits her head. This sets in motion a series of events that will have cataclysmic consequences.

The purported miracle has a range of effects on the people who hear about it. The church itself is mostly dismissive and scathing. For a group of devout foreign health workers it offers the possibility of a spiritual connection in a depressing and godless country. Unsurprisingly,the most profound effect is on the witness herself. For the church’s stretched priest, the resulting fururoe provokes a crisis of faith.

Though the novel is centred around the church, there are many peripheral characters that make up this absorbing analysis of faith in the 21st Century.  What Kay does brilliantly is lay bare her characters attitude towards God and religion, without disclosing her own. This could easily have become a Dawkins style hammer attack on organised religion, or a believer’s blinkered defence of their church, but is neither. It is impossible to descern with Francesca Kay is pro or anti organised religion. There is undoubtedly some criticism, but there is also a clear fondness for the good that the church, as a community, can do.

Whilst the novel is heavily character driven, with little plot driving the narrative, it makes for compulsive reading. As the novel approaches it’s apex, it’s like watching a natural disaster unfold on the television.  Terrible to behold, but impossible to tear yourself away.

The novel’s events tear through the community like an earthquake. Some people are buried alive; others continue, left to rebuild amongst the rubble. For those further from the epicentre, things barely change. They have their brush with tragedy; it gives them pause, but little more than that. Yet, even for those whose existence is in tatters, time passes. The normal and mundane keeps rolling on; even the grief-stricken need to read the gas meter.

So the novel sort of petres out. The rawness starts to heal, repercussions are felt, but life is returning to normal. This could be construed as an underpowered finale, but is a reflection of reality. The novel closes with lose threads, because none of the characters’ stories are done. Our time with them has finished, but their lives go on.

All this is rendered with a great eye for detail in delicious and delicate prose. Some threads are less satisfactory than others, but the whole weave is a sumptuous exploration of faith in modern Britain. Whilst Kay’s realist approach won’t appeal to all readers, the Translation of Bones is a fine novel delivered by a talented author.

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