Gareth Smith reviews award-winning writer Carys Davies’ latest novel, The Mission House, which follows a middle-aged ex-librarian Hilary.
Carys Davies’ novel The Mission House initially appears to be treading familiar ground. Middle-aged, ex-librarian Hilary Byrd (whose name sounds fittingly Edwardian) has travelled to a remote Indian town and former hill station in order to escape from his problems in Britain and find new experiences among its picturesque sights. He is offered the use of the mission house by the local pastor and it is described as ‘a gift, a sanctuary away from everything in his life that frightened him or made him sad’. The narrative of the travelling Westerner who seeks fulfilment in an exoticised land has a long and tired history but it is, thankfully, not one which The Mission House chooses to pursue. Instead, Davies leads us onto this well-worn path in order to surprise and disorient. This isn’t the story of a lone journey in a foreign country, but rather of the myriad of connections between individual lives, national histories and global events.
In The Mission House when Hilary arrives in the town (a fictionalised version of Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu) on the railroad built by the British, he seems determined to capture a romanticised colonial past. He writes letters home to his sister, hires a local man to drive him to British-built sites and reads historical books about the town in its imposing Victorian library. Davies’ descriptions, with an eye for minimalist detail rather than florid description, capture the busy streets and vivid landscapes with ease, but in a manner that undermines, rather than confirms, Hilary’s subjective gaze. The town is not an escape from the ‘modern world’ but representative of it, as a multicultural, multi-faith community that, despite its provinciality, is connected to national and global cultures.
Hilary’s viewpoint in The Mission House is decentred by the use of multiple narrative perspectives from across the town and this allows Davies to highlight the alternative histories all around him. He ignores the personal life of his driver, Jamshed, who is constructing his own narrative of life in the town through daily jottings in an exercise book. The pastor’s adoptive daughter, Priscilla, feels more affinity with US country music than the religion of her father and uses it to forge relationships and change the direction of her life. It is the cost to Hilary of missing these connections that Davies explores, weaving a narrative of thwarted ambitions and secret desires that encompasses the intensely personal and the weight of numerous, and competing, pasts and presents.
The political context of The Mission House, inspired by the rise of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, trickles carefully into the central narrative until it overwhelms it with fatal consequences. The ubiquity of political violence is not presented solely as a consequence of local, or even national, tensions but as a global tendency resulting from ignorance and prejudice. The characters are both inextricably connected with their contemporary moment and yet feel detached from it – as does Hilary, who, when asked about the UK’s own recent political developments, seems oblivious to the changes that have happened right under his nose. This tension between the personal and the political characterises the lives of all principal characters and builds gradually throughout the novel. The sparse chapters create a sense of accelerating menace, while several well-placed chronological jumps allow a sense of foreboding to permeate the text. Its relatively short, novella-esque length does not detract from these Gothic elements but rather heightens them.
With several narrative twists and surprising moments, The Mission House is an effective and gripping exploration of tangled (dis)connections which, fittingly, leads both the reader and Hilary Byrd on a completely different journey than expected.
Carys Davies’ The Mission House is available now from Granta.
Gareth Smith contributes regularly to Wales Arts Review.