A profound novel about the nature of faith and motherhood that “begins as the small mystery of one woman’s vision (or delusion) and explodes into a deeper story” (The Washington Post).
Mary-Margaret O’Reilly is seemingly a harmless enough young woman, ready and willing to help out Father Diamond in the Sacred Heart church in Battersea. She may not be very bright, and she is sadly overweight, but she can certainly clean, and is very good with children. It is the statue of Jesus on the cross Mary-Margaret is especially drawn to, and one day she decides to give Him a thorough and loving cleansing. But then moments later she lies unconscious, a great gash in her head, blood on the floor. Word gets out that she has witnessed a miracle and soon a full-scale religious mania descends on the quiet church, and everyone, from Father Diamond to his small but loyal band of parishioners, is affected by it. After recovering, Mary-Margaret returns to the church, and obsessively, back to the statue of Jesus. He has told her things, things she must act on, and urgently. The act she decides on is a shocking one, making The Translation of the Bones a riveting story of passion gone tragically wrong.
This reading group guide forThe Translation of the Bonesincludes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel has an impressive cast of characters who see the world in very different ways and yet Kay treats each of them with real compassion. Which characters were most difficult for you to sympathize with and why?
2. What is the significance of the title? Technically speaking, to translate bones is to move holy relics from one resting place to another. What significance do you think the title has in relation to the book?
3. Kay writes beautifully about the ways in which people connect—be it within a family or through the church or a neighborhood—and writes with particular passion about the bond between mothers and their children. What might it be about that relationship, and the different forms it takes, that was so compelling to the author? How did that come across?
4. Late in the novel, Kay evokes Luke 23:29: “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bear, and the breasts that never gave suck. For if the end of loving is sorrow beyond bearing, is it not better from the first to forswear love?” What do you think this passage might mean to each character in the book?
5. Does it seem like Kay set out to write a book about faith? Does she seem like a particularly faithful person from this book?
6. Think about how different the relationships between Mary-Margaret and her mother and Stella and her son are. What do you think this book has to say about motherhood? How does it relate to the fact that so much of the action revolves around a statue of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus?
7. Kay uses Mary-Margaret’s story to explore the ambiguity of faith and why we believe what we believe. Do you think Mary-Margaret is crazy? How can her faith in something unreal be so important to her?
8. Stella Morrison is elegant, beautiful, a devoted but not doting mother, tastefully devout in her religious beliefs and dutiful to her husband. Yet Stella is ultimately unhappy. How does her unhappiness make you feel? Do you think it is warranted?
9. As is true of any human being, all the characters in this book have flaws as well as strengths. What do you consider to be each character’s biggest flaw? Their best strength? How does each of these contribute to the end of the story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Take a group tour of a nearby Catholic church. Pay special attention to the artwork, icons and statues on display. Discuss how the treatment of religious art is different or similar to that of other faiths.
2. Have each member of the group write about their own thoughts on faith and belief and how those thoughts changed after reading the book. Discuss.
3. Read the passage towards the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in which the protagonist prepares to host a party. Compare it to the passage in The Translation of the Bones in which Stella prepares to host a party. Discuss the differences and similarities you see in the two women and the way the authors treat them.