The British Empire Library

The Mission House

by Carys Davies

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Carys Davies is a relatively new name in literary circles. A prizewinning short story writer, her first novel West took the Wales Fiction Book of the Year in 2019. Her latest publication The Mission House came out in full pandemic mode - no Hay Festival, no readings or signings. That has not prevented her growing band of admirers from discovering it. With two short story collections and two novellas to her name , some themes are emerging. The first is in her preference for the nov e lla genre . A genre for our times: environmentally friendly in its reduced number of pages, convenient for reading on a commute, a pick-up-and-put-down format for busy mums and home carers desperate to remember who they are beyond the current day's tasklist.

The novella is also a challenge to the writer, one to which Carys Davies has risen spectacularly. Her writing is taut, non-flowery. She avoids multi-syllabic words. Her characters, plots and settings emerge from the page full y formed. Some reader-reviewers on GoodReads, new to Davies, are surprised by her style in The Mission House finding her 'boring', her prose drifting'. Au contraire. It is the art of narrating everyday life coupled with the internal monologue of individuals. Like the lake, calm on the surface yet buzzing frantically beneath with the internal monologue of each character, influenced by each person's backstory, economic circumstances, their health, their dreams, desires and anxieti es. This book is about grief and loss, disappointment and hope, the misguided energy of hatred and healing of hurt souls.

Th e Mission H ouse is set in modern day Udagamandalam, though the 'Briti s h-built ' town is not named. The reader instantl y recognizes the hill station floating above th e int ens e heat of the South Indian plains as 'Ooty' . The 'slow, blue train' takes five hours to reach its destination just as it did when the railway was constructed in 1908. BACSA m e mbers who know Ootacamund will be delighted to revisit it s market with its cloth stalls, the old comfy library, the racecourse now used as a vegetable garden, the Botanical Gardens, the chocolate s hop, the lake where you can still hire a rowing boat, now with internet cafes, petrol stations and CD sellers. And everywhere the ubiquitous rustling eucalyptus trees, themselves an unlikely importation. A tired and dispirited Englishman arrives seek in g respite from the heat. On the train, he meets the Pa dre of St. Peter's Church who immediately offers him the use of a bungalow next to his presbytery while the usual occupant, a young Canadian missionary, is away. Coming out of the sta tion, our traveller encounters Jamshed, the auto driver. The base of the tal e is thus firmly constructed; the many other characters are branches and le aves from this main trunk, each as well drawn and each playing their full part, including the dog and a horse. We are drawn into the rich cultural, et hni c , linguistic and religious mix that is still 'Ooty' - or was before the rise of the BJP. The tiniest hints of trouble ahead are lightly sprinkled like d ew , easily missed if yo u are not up early enough.

Here is an extract: 'In the afternoons he went to th e library and sat in his usual chair opposite the buffalo 's head and tried to read . When he couldn't, he walked out of the library and through the wooded g rounds around it to the low wall at its outer edge, and from th ere up the hill. On these occasions, he told Jamshed not to wait; he would walk home , he needed the exercise . Sometimes he cut through S t. Peter's churchyard and took the path between the collapsing gravestones. As he walk ed he scanned the inscriptions - the names and dates of the British who'd come here and made the place their own: the s ldiers and the doctors, the officials and their wives and so me times their children and their babies; the ones who'd never left, who were planted here in the earth. 'For anyone who has spent lockdown clutching their passport in one hand and watching re-runs ofindian Hill Railways, this is for you.

British Empire Book
Carys Davies
978 I 7837843 I 8
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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