Miracles and foundering souls aside, Francesca Kay's new novel, The Translation of the Bones, is not a religious story, nor does it answer big questions about faith and God. Rather, it considers why people believe what they do and the inextricable connection between love, sorrow, and solace. The story is centered on the Church of the Sacred Heart in Battersea, in urban South London, where a mentally fragile young volunteer, Mary-Margaret O'Reilly, mistakes a bad blow to the head for a personal message from Christ. When word of a bleeding statue spreads, the spectacle becomes an embarrassment to those connected to the church and its spiritually exhausted parish priest.
Kay limits plot development in favor of richly developed characters whose commonality is the church and aching motherhood. There is Stella, the lovely cabinet official's wife and flower arranger, whose youngest boy is at boarding school; and Alice, the church housekeeper whose son is in Afghanistan. Both are awaiting the return of their sons. There is also Fidelma, the obese, housebound mother of Mary-Margaret, whose childhood memories still haunt her. Whether or not a miracle has occurred becomes unimportant and unexplored as Kay's characters carry on with distracted lives until tragedy eventually unifies everyone and unhinging loss challenges the nature of belief.
The author's first novel, An Equal Stillness, won Britain's Orange Award for New Writers in 2009. Her new slim novel omits chapters and speech marks, but it doesn't matter. The story shifts seamlessly between different points of view with language, so lovely at times that it invites the occasional sigh, and the knowledge that passion, whether prompted by religious mania or devotion to loved ones is a complex emotion that human beings will forever be trying to define.