The Translation of the Bones
By Francesca Kay
Abuse and sexual scandal have rocked the Catholic Church over the past several years. Even more troubling and infuriating has been the failure of the Church’s leadership to admit the wrongs done and correct them voluntarily, expeditiously, and with penitence, as you would expect from a religious organization. So, with the Pope’s U.S. visit beginning, there’s no better time to call your attention to Francesca Kay’s 2012 novel.
Kay tells a compelling story about the consequences a violent act has on a group of religious and secular people, and provides an even more profound exploration of how abuse at the hands of Irish nuns — at the hands of anyone, really — might produce unexpected ramifications for those abused, those close to them, and those not.
The central story turns on the vision the simpleminded Mary-Margaret O’Reilly believes with all the faith in her, and it is considerable, that Christ has spoken to her through a statute in a chapel of the Church of the Scared Heart, Battersea, London. She’s convinced her Lord loves her, and later, after she learns the truth about her mother Fidelma, she concludes she must purify her mother by invoking the ancient ritual of atonement and placation: a sacrifice. Specifically, drawing upon among the more faith-inspiring or troubling episodes, depending on your viewpoint, in the old testament, Genesis 22:1-19.
In the first half of the short, tightly drawn story, we learn about Mary-Margaret, her dimness, her faithfulness, and her symbiotic relationship with her mother. Slowly, as we approach the mother’s critical revelation, we discover much more about Fidelma, who in many respects represents the most intriguing and tragic character in the tale. We also meet a fairly extensive bevy of personalities (some of them stock; a small weakness), given the brevity of the novel. Primary among them are Father Diamond, the parish priest, a former maths student who received his vocation early in life, but who now harbors doubts; Mrs. Armitage, volunteer church caretaker, who Mary-Margaret assists, awaiting with anxiety the return of her son from a tour in Afghanistan; Stella, wife of constantly distracted and ambitious MP (Member of Parliament) Rufus Morrison, a second wife with two adult children away in different parts of the world, and Felix at boarding school, a perplexed child of 10. Stella looks forward to Felix’s spring vacation at home similarly to Mrs. Armitage’s anticipation of her son’s return, events ultimately related to each other by the incident in the church.
The event, the second one, in the church perpetrated in all guileless simplicity by Mary-Margaret sets off the theme of the novel’s second half: how people deal with the inexplicable and, in this case, the loss it produces. Mary-Margaret’s obedience to God’s calling affects each character differently.
Now for Fidelma, whom, as you get to know her story, you’ll find yourself envisioning as a matryoshka doll, and a very large one at that. The true self of Fidelma lives within her morbidly obese body. Her body exists within the box of her 19th floor council apartment, which she never leaves. Fidelma reveals her story through reminisces of her girlhood in an Irish coastal town that includes unwed motherhood and exile to the care of nuns. While Kay does not reference the Sisters of Mercy abuse case that spanned decades, that she had it in mind seems certain. Nuns, and priests, inflicted upon innocent children beatings, sexual abuse, and other extreme cruelties, among them confinement for long periods in dark isolation. How would such treatment affect a child and manifest itself in adulthood? And what other acts of horror might result from their abominable treatment of the children? You may conclude rightly that the nuns began the chain of events that exploded the Saturday before Easter in a Catholic church in Battersea.
An insightful, thoughtful story of sorrow and redemption well told. Highly recommended, especially now with the Pope’s U.S. visit taking place. w/c