Carys Davies’ name will be known to many readers, I’m sure. Her elegantly slim debut, West, was much acclaimed when it was published in 2018. The story of a man so obsessed by reports of ancient bones found in a Kentucky swamp that he leaves his young daughter to fend for herself, it’s very different from The Mission House and yet they share the same fable-like quality. Set against the backdrop of rising Hindu nationalism in India, Davies’ novel explores themes of post-colonialism and religious intolerance through the story of Hilary Byrd, a British tourist who’s sought relief from the relentless heat of the plains in a hill station.
Hilary has been offered the use of a bungalow by a priest met on the train that lifts him out of the hot, dusty plains into the mountains. The Canadian missionary whose lodgings it is has returned home to renew his visa, leaving the bungalow vacant. Timid and dogged by life-long anxiety, Hilary has uncharacteristically taken himself off to India having lost his job as a librarian. At the station, Jamshed waits as the younger rickshaw drivers whose insistent demands Hilary ignores melt away, spotting the possibility of an opportunity to help fund his nephew’s outlandish plans to become a Country and Western star. When Hilary falls in the local market, it’s Jamshed who comes to his rescue. These two form a bond almost bordering on friendship as Jamshed ferries Hilary on his daily forays around town, listening to his tales of unhappiness at home. The priest has also spotted an opportunity for his orphaned, disabled housekeeper, asking Hilary to teach Priscilla English. Hilary begins to see a future for himself but no one, it seems, has considered that Priscilla may have her own plans.
It had struck her then, that very first day, how like a mop he looked: his skinny legs, white as flour and shockingly exposed; his tall body and the pieces of thin, fluffy hair wafting about in the air above his head
In her acknowledgements, Davies explains that The Mission House was inspired by the rise of Hindu nationalism which has so inflamed religious intolerance in India. This is the backdrop against which Hilary’s story plays out, always there but never laboured, meshing with the theme of post-colonialism which is evident everywhere: in Hilary’s implicit superiority towards Jamshed; in the hill station, a slice of Scotland recreated during the Empire where school girls still wear tartan skirts; in the ‘do-gooding’ Westerners who volunteer at the orphanage, another form of colonialism. We know early on that a crime has been committed from the occasional passages where the police are mentioned but Davies leads us to the climax of her novel slowly, developing her characters and their stories through their differing perspectives before ending in a way which might not be quite what we expected. All this is delivered in the same understated, sometimes poetic prose that I remember from West. A quietly thoughtful novel, immersive and humane in its depiction of a society riven with poverty and intolerance, still struggling with the consequences of colonial rule many decades after gaining independence.
Granta Books: London 9781783784301 256 pages Hardback