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The Mission House by Carys Davies — subtle tale of separated worlds

Cover of The Mission House by Carys Davies a subtle novel about a gulf in misunderstanding in an Indian hill town

The Mission House is a deceptively quiet novel from the Welsh author Carys Davies. On the outside it’s a subdued and subtle tale about a lonely man while inside there’s a darker thread about the continuing legacy of British imperialism in India.

These two dimensions come together in the shape of Hilary Byrd, a middle-aged librarian from London who is travelling alone in India. A chance encounter with a padre on a train gives him an opportunity to swap the unbearably hot, dusty plains for the cool of the mountains.  In the hill station of Ooty, Byrd settles into a bungalow in the garden of the padre’s mission house.

Gradually it becomes apparent that it’s not just the heat that Byrd is escaping. Back home in Britain he’d suffered a nervous breakdown when his once-quiet library was taken over by “the tapping of keyboards and the singing of babies and the hysterical shouting of the drunk and the angry [and] the loud show-offy inquiries of the family history folk. ”

In the Mission House at Ooty, his equilibrium is restored by the temperate climate and the comfort of the familiar. His daily routine takes in visits to places that make him feel as if he were back home: the neat and orderly botanical gardens, the peaceful Victorian style library”; the King Star chocolate shop stocked with bars of fruit-and-nut, and Higginbotham’s bookshop with its supply of Penguin Classics.

Peace and tranquility is further enhanced when Hilary is asked to help the padre’s orphaned housekeeper, Priscilla, to read, bake and sew. His time is soon occupied with teaching Priscilla to bake sponge cakes scones and to stitch, reviving the skills he’d learned from a maiden aunt. At night, the pair read from fairy tales and old Laydbird books under the watchful eyes of the padre.

But Byrd’s peace of mind rests on a delusion which Carys Davies suggests is the product of a westerner’s sense of superiority.

When Byrd warms to the idea of marrying Priscilla it’s not because he loves her but because he pities her as a lame orphan alone in the world. The books he chooses for her reading practices are those he loved in his younger days but they’re from a world alien to her own culture and history. When we get inside the girl’s head it’s to find she actually hates the “horrible old books from the UK.”

… silly boring titles … difficult words looming in a dreadful way on the page opposite bright pictures of kittens and armies of men and balls of wool and golden coaches and beanstalks. The same horrible thing about every book: every single one exactly 56 pages long. Florence Nightingale and The story of Ships, Puss in Boots and The Weather and Sly Fox and The Night Sky and The Marriage Porridge Pot and Things to Make.

The relationship which is even more revealing is that between Byrd and Jamshed, the aged driver of a rickety auto rickshaw. They meet, literally, as the result of an accident after which Jamshed becomes Byrd’s regular driver, taking the visitor on daily rounds of his favourite places.

As the weeks pass, a bond forms between this unlikely pair.

Byrd finds himself able to talk more openly about his anxieties to the old man, than he ever could to his doctor or his sister. But that’s only because he is talking to the back of Jamshed’s head and it’s only ever Byrd that does the talking.

He never inquires about the old man’s life or his health and never learns of the man’s concerns about earning enough money to keep his fuel tank full and fund his nephew’s extraordinary ambition to be a country and western singer. He’s so completely oblivious to Jamshed’s life that on one occasion he advises the driver to read Chekhov, blithely adding that the bookshop should have a Hindi translation.

Jamshed did not say that the language he spoke when he was not speaking English — or the smattering of French and German and Japanese he’d picked up over the years from all the tourists and volunteers he’d driven around — was not Hindi, but Tamil. He thought about saying so, but it seemed rude to point out Mr Byrd’s mistake.

Carys Davies’ characterisation is wonderful. Jamshed cuts a ridiculous figure when first seen in his mismatching footwear (one black flip flop and one red plastic cog) and washed out shirt bearing the slogan WORLD CLASS. As we get to know him, he emerges as a thoughtful and selfless man who methodically keeps a record of his life and the history of Ooty, capturing events big and small in colourful exercise books.

Davies presents Byrd as a figure to be pitied, a man completely at sea in the modern world, a “scarab beetle on its back … all its legs and arms waving about, rocking from side to side trying to flip itself the right way up”. He could be viewed as one more example of the hapless figure in a foreign country.

He seems to find his feet after a fashion, getting over his initial feelings of dislocation; the feeling that he belonged “in these foreign fields and also that he didn’t”. But his equilibrium has been achieved only by retreating back into the past, to the heyday of the British Empire. Byrd’s tragedy is to want life to stay the same at a time when Hindu nationalism is on the rise and the forces for change in India are gathering momentum.

This isn’t an overtly political novel. There are hints of unrest and unease — the padre at one point mentions “the beatings and the burnings, the lynchings and the riots.” — and an early clue that some misfortune befalls Byrd. But these never dominate the overall narrative about relationships and the failure to connect. It’s a novel that starts quietly in a rather understated manner, but deepens through an accumulation of details and perspectives to an unexpected conclusion.

The Mission House by Carys Davies: Footnotes

Carys Davies was born and raised in Wales. She worked in the United States for twelve years but has now returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh.

She has written two collections of short stories: Some New Ambush and The Redemption of Galen Pike, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Her debut novel West was published by Granta in 2018. It won the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Award.

The Mission House, was published in the UK by Grant and by Text Publishing in Australia and New Zealand 2020.

The Mission House formed part of my #20booksofsummer reading list but I never got around to writing the review before the challenge ended. My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review. I’m counting this as book 21 in my #21in21 project where I am aiming to read more of the books from my TBR.

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