Second novel from the author of West ("a miniature masterpiece"-Sunday Times) is set on a former British hill station in South India, where Hilary Byrd, a gentle fiftyish former librarian who feels out of place in modern Britain, has sought refuge. He is offered shelter by the local Christian Padre and his adopted daughter Priscilla, and befriends rickshaw driver Jamshed, who takes him on excursions. But Indian nationalism is rising, and this beautifully crafted story reveals the clash between old and new ways, imperial past and nationalistic present.
The Mission House is an interesting take on a familiar trope: the westerner who finds in India deliverance from the wasteland of modernity (epitomised in Byrd’s mind by Bromley public library with its self-checkout stations and its dearth of dictionaries). What’s different is that this isn’t the India of unadulterated eastern spirituality that normally greets that stock character. There are no banal mantras, no cryptic mystics. Jamshed, Ravi and Priscilla are all atheists... The Mission House truthfully reveals that the new realities of India will increasingly have their revenge on these tired old romances.
The scene is teasingly, charmingly set for a love triangle, but although Davies’s story initially seems timeless, it actually takes place in the years running up to Narendra Modi’s rise to power — years marked by outbreaks of horrific religious violence.
Having subtly prepared the ground, Davies finally springs the jaws of her plot, revealing, heartbreakingly, to us, and the tragically blinkered Hilary, what kind of story this really is.
The qualities that hallmark Davies’s stories (concise tales that encompass a prodigious geographical and historical range) found perfect scope in West. As a widower in 1815 America leaves his Pennsylvania farm and heads for Kentucky, excited by the news of gigantic bones discovered in its swamps, the Wild West genre is brilliantly refashioned. Racial displacement, yearning aspiration and vulnerabilities of various kinds are surveyed in a narrative of streamlined accomplishment.