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.
Reportedly “inspired by true events”, The Mission House is a quiet novel of unquiet times. With India’s ideological unrest a vague and distant rumble, Davies’s book feels temporally unmoored, as much an unwitting elegy for a lost England as a portrait of India in the throes of remaking itself. That’s the peril of the hapless Englishman: at its best, this literary device can be a sharp cultural skewer, but it can also be a vector for a kind of folkloric nostalgia that obscures the dark realities of empire.
The novel accelerates in the final chapters as the Padre prepares Priscilla for a wedding and local unrest builds. Some of Davies’s footing comes a little unstuck here, not least because the psychology of the closing moments is not wholly convincing, but what a fascinating novel this remains.
Carys Davies’s previous novella, West, is an exquisite, haunting tale of an unlikely hero in 19th-century America. Here again she summons up a man whose obvious failings and weaknesses live side by side with a heartbreaking kind of nobility. No words are wasted, yet her conjuring of place and character are rich and vivid. Davies’s tale feels timeless — so much so that it’s a shock when Byrd sends an email — a message of moral responsibility framed as quiet tragedy.
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.