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The Translation of the Bones

A Novel

Read by Fiona Shaw

Faith or delusion? Fantasy or fact? From the winner of the 2009 Orange New Writers Award comes a profound meditation on the nature of faith and a riveting story of religious passion gone tragically wrong in London.

When word gets out that Mary-Margaret O’Reilly, a somewhat slow-witted but apparently harmless young woman, may have been witness to a miracle, religious mania descends on the Church of the Sacred Heart by the River Thames in Battersea, London. The consequences will be profound, not only for Mary-Margaret herself but for others too—Father Diamond, the parish priest, who is in the midst of his own lonely crisis of faith, and Stella Morrison, adrift in a loveless marriage and aching for her ten-year old son, away at boarding school. Meanwhile another mother, Alice Armitage, counts the days until her soldier son comes home from Afghanistan, and Mary-Margaret’s mother, Fidelma, imprisoned in her tower block, stares out over London through her window for hour after hour with nothing but her thoughts for company.

This is an exquisite novel about passion and isolation, about the nature of belief, about love and motherhood and a search for truth that goes tragically wrong. Mary-Margaret’s desperate attempt to prove that Jesus loves her will change lives in a shocking way. Can anything that is good come out of it; can faith survive sacrifice and pain?

Francesca Kay has crafted a novel that is by turns sly and profound. Her crystalline prose unlocks secrets about our capacity to believe and to love. She is a writer who surprises and delights with her language and her stories.

This reading group guide for The Translation of the Bones includes 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.
Mark Alexander

Francesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers in 2009. She lives in Oxford with her family.

More books from this reader: Fiona Shaw