Rebecca F. John
Hilary Byrd is awkward, a misfit. Somewhat by accident, it seems, he has ended up on the plains of India, where he finds the weather not to his tastes and flees into the hills, seeking cooler air – somewhere he can breathe. In Ooty, a southern hill station, he is invited by the local Padre to take up residence in the mission house attached to the presbytery.
Here, he becomes better acquainted with the kindly Padre, who talks to his dead wife and exists on a constant diet of fryums; his adoptive daughter Priscilla, born with physical deformities and possessed of every intention to defy her apparent lot in life; Ooly the dog, who spends her days depressively drowsing in an old kitchen sink in the garden; and Jamshed, the auto rickshaw driver who collects Byrd from the train station the day he arrives in Ooty, and determines to make him a loyal customer.
As Jamshed drives Byrd around the town, visiting “the Botanical Gardens and the lake […] the King Star Chocolate Shop […] the market […] the library and Higginbotham’s bookshop,” Byrd muses that “everywhere he went things were […] both strange and familiar, predictable and wholly unexpected; easy to understand and indecipherable.”
This musing goes some way to encompassing Davies’ focus in this novel – which, like her debut West – winner of the Wales Book of the Year fiction prize – is a short, sparing narrative, which could be read in one sitting. The question of what we understand and what we do not understand recurs throughout as the five main players – Byrd, the Padre, Priscilla, Jamshed, and Jamshed’s nephew Ravi, a hairdresser-cum-wannabe American country singer – manoeuvre around each other in constant miscommunication.
As Byrd’s trips in the auto-rickshaw become a daily habit, Jamshed inhabits the role of Byrd’s unpaid therapist, and listens with patience and interest as Byrd relays in broken fragments the details of his life in Britain, including a referenced but undefined nervous condition or breakdown. Even his greatest confidante, however, is not permitted the whole story – something Jamshed, with a wisdom Byrd does not bother to consider, notes in the exercise book he uses to practise his written English:
“Some story in his head perhaps (wrote Jamshed) he is not telling.”
This idea is central to Davies’ story, which is told in her usual precise and wonderful style.
Byrd blunders through his new existence, contemplating how “the Victorian splendour of the old library” contrasts with the “Global Internet Café” and the “Modern Stores”, and failing almost entirely to learn his new friends’ stories. He does not wonder why Jamshed wears mismatched, broken shoes, while he gifts his earnings to Ravi, who squanders them on items he believes he needs to make it as a country singer: a guitar, a white Stetson, a half-starved horse.
Indeed, it is only towards the end of the narrative that Byrd considers Jamshed’s life at all:
“And just for a moment, Hilary Byrd was taken outside himself. Just for a moment, he sat looking at the shiny, spotted skin on the back of Jamshed’s head. He had never, in all the weeks he’d been riding around in the old man’s auto rickshaw thought about the old man’s life beyond what he’d seen of it.”
Davies’ characters are beautifully drawn. Byrd’s middle-aged haplessness is apparent from his very first appearance on the page. Ravi’s innocent optimism is both endearing and pitiful. Priscilla’s search for self in a world where “She’d had another name once but could no longer remember it” simmers quietly throughout. Jamshed’s quiet devotion to family and future is tender and admirable.
They are fully realised people, with backstories Davies offers us tantalising glimpses of. In their hopes, thoughts, actions and outlooks, they are unique and memorable, and serve to gentle the politics of the novel enough to make the same palatable to even the least political of readers.
In the mistakes Byrd makes as he attempts to connect with the Padre and, especially, Priscilla, he demonstrates all the dangers of making assumptions about another’s way of life. And despite his ignorance, we do feel sympathy for him, as Davies creates such a convincing divide between what he knows and what the reader knows that we are able to watch him blundering towards his next mistake, and wonder how often we, unwittingly, have done the very same thing.
Davies deftness of touch is apparent throughout. Though the narrative is, perhaps, a tad rushed in the denouement, which is the only small part of this novel where, to my mind, subject is placed ahead of story. I wanted more from and for Byrd in this closing sequence.
That being said, The Mission House is, in true Davies style, an entrancing read. Davies has proven her proficiency at showing us worlds through the smallest of details, and she does it again with this accomplished and confident novel. The Mission House feels at once historic and contemporary, old and new, known and unknown, and in its unobtrusive way it invites its reader – as the very best writing always does – to ask questions about the world we live in and the part we play in it.
The Mission House is published by Granta. You can buy it here.