The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

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The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Mary Margaret decides to give the figure of Jesus on the church's crucifix a bit of a clean. What she witnesses next has far-reaching effects, ensuring that life is never the same again... and not only for her.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: August 2011
Publisher: W&N
ISBN: 978-0297865087

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

The Translation of the Bones revolves around four women, all connected with the Church of the Sacred Heart, Battersea. Mary Margaret, not the sharpest knife in the box, lives between two poles. When she isn't in church, she's caring for her flat-bound, morbidly obese mother, Fidelma. Alice Armitage, happily married to Larry, counts the days until their son will be home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The fourth woman, Stella, lives in a loveless marriage to MP Rufus and spends her time wishing the days away till she can collect her 10-year-old son from boarding school. Father Diamond ministers to these women and the church community in general, but whilst worrying about his own adequacy and faith. However, their problems thus far are nothing compared to the devastation to come.

This is one of those multi-level novels. On the surface, it's a wonderful collection of stories. Each character has the church in common but also has an individual storyline making an absorbing tale in itself. However, for those who wish to delve deeper, Francesca Kay raises interesting questions about the nature of love, faith, and isolation. For instance, the reader can't help comparing the Armitages' marriage, still brimming with love and companionship, with that of Stella and the awful Rufus. (Apologies for appearing partisan, but he's horrible!)

Stella remains loyal out of duty but all her love is spent on her son, away at boarding school, who is as understanding of the situation as any typical 10-year-old, i.e. not at all. In fact, Stella is as isolated in her marriage as Fidelma is in her council flat, unable to leave and dreaming of a past when she had youth and freedom. The scenes of internal exploration are, on the whole, excellent, but it's not all about the deep psyche. There are some smiles to be had too, for instance, Mary Margaret's thought processes when trying to decide which cleaning products to buy for Jesus made me chuckle.

I found it refreshing that any questions or dissection in which the author partakes isn't spiteful or cruel. This is no scathing deconstruction. In fact, this is an eloquent novel of unusual grace, as is fitting of someone who has appeared on prior Orange Prize listings. (Francesca Kay's first book, An Equal Stillness was short-listed in 2009.) Despite some cutting observations and scenes, she hasn't created a single unsympathetic character (apart from Rufus, of course). Neither should anything in this novel offend anyone of faith. Ms Kay understands and empathises with those who populate her world, ensuring that the reader does too.

It's not just the characterisation and themes that are of worth a mention, but also the in-built mounting expectation. Francesca Kay pulls off a very neat trick. Partway through the book, the reader realises that something big is going to happen. There isn't a clue as to what it will be, just the realisation that something will occur. I won't recount the snippets that create the signposts as this is, again, one of those novels in which the joy and grip are in the discovery, but the destination is well worth the journey.

My only gripe (and it is a minor one) is that, although the characters' scenes of self-revelation and internal dialogues work very well, there is one after... the event, shall we say... that seems a little overlong and loses its way. I'm quite prepared to be told that it's only me who feels this, though and it's no reason to avoid the book as it's only a tiny piece of a larger, wonderful whole. Indeed, I would definitely encourage you to add this book to your reading list. The Translation of the Bones draws attention to the world that surrounds us on a daily basis in a way we may not have thought or been challenged to look at it before, and I shan't complain about that.

If you've enjoyed this and would like to read another book that looks at the world from an interesting viewpoint, try Amelia and the Virgin by Nicky Harlow. You might also enjoy The Unround Circle by Pete Bellotte, although we had our reservations.

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Buy The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay at


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