The mission house by Carys Davies
Text Publishing, 2020. ISBN: 9781922330635.
(Age: Adult) Highly recommended. I enjoyed this book from the first page; I loved how scenes in India were conjured with just a few deft words, and the unusual characters drew me in. I found myself reading more and more slowly because while I wanted to get to the heart of the mystery, I was enjoying the story so much I didn't want to come to the end. The writing style is sparse but with just the right words dropped into a sentence to convey a place and a feeling. And there is a gentle vein of humour that made me smile but still empathise with the anxieties that torment the main character Hilary Byrd.
Hilary Byrd is a man too much in his own mind, he has come to India to find himself again following a prolonged period of depression, possibly a nervous breakdown, in his past life as a librarian in the UK. A chance encounter on the train escaping from the heat of the plains to the coolness of the hill stations of south India leads him to accept an invitation from the Padre to stay in the mission house while the young missionary, Henry Page, is overseas. And it turns out to be just what Byrd needs - cool, peaceful, undemanding, and with a small circle of people that he can get to know gradually on his own terms: the kindly Padre himself, the orphan Priscilla with the limp and missing thumbs, and the auto driver Jamshed, uncle to another orphaned young person, Ravi the hopeful Country and Western singer complete with guitar and horse.
Byrd seems to have finally found a place where he feels like there is some meaning to his life, some sense of fulfilment, and where he feels comfortable as his friendships grow. But early on, the author Carys Davies lets us know that something does go wrong, with just the side mention of a police statement and witness recollections. It's enough to alert us that Byrd may be deluded and there is some kind of tragedy ahead.
I found this to be a really intriguing story of the fragility of people's hopes and dreams, the unsaid words, the good intentions, the mistakes and misunderstandings, set within the context of a country with a history of oppression and simmering conflict. The takeaway in the end? - probably the treasure of kindness and friendship in unexpected places and the personal rewards in giving to others. It is an unusual story of small lives impacted by larger political events.
Themes: Anxiety, Depression, Loneliness, Post-colonial India, Friendship, Relationships.