Before I read "The Translation of the Bones" (Scribner) by Francesca Kay, I had three favorite novels on spiritual topics. Now I have four.
Kay's fiercely lyrical yet exceedingly tough-minded novel about a tragedy precipitated by a would-be spiritual awakening is easily fit to join "In This House of Brede" (1969) by Rumer Godden; "Mariette in Ecstasy" (1991) by Ron Hansen; and "Be Near Me" (2006) by Andrew O'Hagan.
The books by Godden, Hansen and O'Hagan — and now Kay — reward rereading on account of their beautiful prose, their complex exploration of religious thought and their subtle understanding of the human yearning after something larger than ourselves, often conducted under a sky "so blue that it made all dreams seem continuous," as O'Hagan writes.
"The Translation of the Bones" is brief, stark and unforgettable.
In a Catholic church in a British city, the priest, Father Diamond, struggles with a fear that he may have too little faith, while a parishioner named Mary-Margaret surely has too much. The story flits in and out of the minds of its characters, including Stella, wife of a wealthy politician; Fidelma, Mary-Margaret's mother, an agoraphobic subsisting on the memory of her lost youth; and Mrs. Armitage, whose soldier son, deployed to Afghanistan, fills her anxious thoughts.
And through it all, as events move inexorably toward an apogee of sorrow, a keen spiritual hunger looms in the air like incense, a regret that most of us are similar to Stella, who "abided by the faith of her upbringing more by default than through conscious option."
Yet what we desire, Stella suspects, are "rhymed customs and calendars, feast days and old beliefs, flowers, magic, miracles and spells. Oak and ash and thorn." Something to console us when the unthinkable happens — which, inevitably, it does.
JULIA KELLER is the Chicago Tribune's cultural critic. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.Copyright © 2015, CT Now