Although I read Kay’s novel in one day, appalled and absorbed by the author’s tragic meditation on love, faith and grief, I am hesitant to recommend this depressing tale
featuring an overweight woman locked in a physical and metaphorical prison, while the death of a child fills the pages with inconsolable tragedy. Still, Kay’s sacred landscape in Battersea is written with such a poetic eye that it is impossible not to appreciate the author’s startling capacity for capturing her protagonists' inner lives.
Before the atmosphere feels heavy in the Church of the Sacred Heart, the shafts of sunlight glisten briefly and then are gone. Poor Mary-Margaret feels the warmth against her hand, attentive to every emotional trace.
The girl is helplessly unmoored by the endless love and reverence toward the statue of Jesus,
a colored plaster crucifix that is nailed to the wall above a narrow altar.
Stella Morrison doesn’t tell her husband, Rufus, that she found poor Mary-Margaret unconscious on the floor of a side chapel, a halo of blood around her head.
As she goes to fetch help from industrious Alice Armitage, blood seeps from her wound. Father Diamond is truly perplexed at Mary-Margaret’s fractured talk of visions. It doesn't take long for Facebook messages to appear, as do the rumors in the local congregation. The ripples of the story are soon expanding inexorably, catching in concentric rings.
A feeling of foreboding permeates this tale. Kay writes her novel in a series of internal monologues - from the fraught, self-deluded viewpoint of young Mary-Margaret and her skewed notions of her mother, Fidelma, to Father Diamond's brittle, unsure badge of authority, to Mrs. Armitage, who is rather scornful of the conspicuously devout and is convinced that Mary-Margaret’s reality is warped.
Mary-Margaret’s vision is seen as a miracle in “this city of unbelievers.” Other girls are convinced of the open eyes, the bleeding wounds, and the certainty of love. Mary-Margaret tells Father Diamond she’d have given anything to take away the pain: “the blood from the holes were made by thorns, all over my hands when I was anointing him.”
From the full horror Mary-Margaret’s misguided actions to obese Fidelma, who sits in her roosting place by the window on the ninth floor of her tower block
- existing on a diet of salt, sugar and fat as she watches the fading daylight give way to a blaze of streetlamps and neon-bright stairwells across South London - it is ultimately Stella who becomes the tragic, chosen one. In this strangely opaque tale, love sometimes proves transient,
and the raw mourning of a mother should not be lightly told.
While Fidelma ruminates on her past, tragedy forces Stella to question her marriage, and Father Diamond has a crisis of faith. Tough themes, but Kay tackles them all with precision, her tone always resolute as she escorts her characters though sudden calamity toward the kinder, more gentle geography of forgiveness.