Francesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2009. Her second novel, which deserves equal praise and attention, marvellously explores the capacity to feel, need and doubt faith. Centred around the Church of the Sacred Heart in Battersea, The Translation of the Bones explores a congregation whose lives interweave and entwine, ultimately reaching a bleak conclusion, although one not entirely devoid of hope.
Mary-Margaret, a dim-witted and bumbling woman nearing middle age, yet still living with her recluse of a mother, purports to have experienced some form of divine intervention, which sets in motion the events of the novel. Amidst her ever-growing determination to seek gratification from the Lord, the lives of other visitors to Sacred Heart unfold. Father Diamond is struggling to tackle the stresses that Easter week brings without the help of Father O’Connor while simultaneously struggling to remain completely faithful to his personal beliefs. Both Stella Morrison and Alice Armitage are anxiously awaiting the arrival of absent sons, the former wishing for her son Felix to return from boarding school, the latter praying her son will arrive home alive from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile Mary-Margaret’s mother, Fidelma, remains imprisoned within her mind, her body and her apartment at the top of a multi-storey tower block. With only her memories and occasionally her silent and distant daughter to keep her company, Fidelma drifts back in her thoughts to a time when she felt passion and the hope of a better future.
The ambiguity surrounding Mary-Margaret’s experience is never elucidated, as Kay herself never letting on what she feels about the mystical experiences of the characters. Instead she reveals more than one perspective on the supposed miracle and refrains from suggesting a distinct line between real and unreal.
The book not only has a brilliant, read-in-one-sitting plot, but Kay also pays much attention to detail and description. The characters’ despair is felt keenly, and the absence of conventional speech gives way to a brilliant exploration of the inner thoughts and secrets of each character, with each paragraph somewhat reminiscent of a private confessional. Kay succeeds in showing, as opposed to telling, the events of the novel, revealing more than just the characters’ experiences. Faith, despair, longing and the fear of a futile existence are just a few of the issues raised in the pages of this novel, encouraging the reader to look not only outwards but also into his or her own experience.