The Mission House By Carys Davies – A Review

Publisher: Granta

Publication Date: 6th August 2020

I am a huge fan of Carys Davies. I really enjoyed her short story collections Some New Ambush and The Redemption Of Galen Pike. So when I saw she had a new novel out I knew I’d have to get my hands on it.

If I’m honest (which I always am) I wasn’t in too much of a rush to get to it as I was a little intimidated by the fact that I gathered from the synopsis that it involved religion. I’m not big on books which tackle this subject so I was a little reticent.

However, I am very pleased to say I needn’t have worried AT ALL.

I picked this book up when I saw that the publication date was fast approaching and I read it in one sitting.

The Mission House tells the interconnecting stories of a handful of characters but our main protagonist is one Hilary Byrd. Hilary has travelled to India on somewhat of a voyage of self discovery. He has had a kind of breakdown and hasn’t handled changes to the beloved library where he works very well. He has seen technology move on and isn’t in agreement with libraries being places where people can socialise. The true nature of a library in Byrd’s eyes is somewhere quiet to read and contemplate and he just cannot get onboard with noisy kids and story time sessions etc.

He has travelled the planes in stiflingly oppressive heat and one day when he’s just about had enough, he hears of a blue railway up into the mountains where the air is cooler. It is on this train journey that he meets a Padre who offers to let him stay for a modest rent in The Mission House, a small bungalow, in the grounds of the presbytery.

It is here that Byrd meets Prescilla, a young girl staying with the Padre as a kind of housekeeper of sorts. She dutifully serves their meals and helps out with various charity events for the church. The first thing that Byrd notices about her is the fact that she has one leg shorter than the other and she is missing both of her thumbs. He considers her to be a very pleasant girl but doesn’t pay her much mind.

When the Padre asks Byrd to assist Prescilla with her English skills he begrudgingly takes up the task as a thank you for letting him stay in the mission house. Helping Prescilla with her spelling and reading soon leads on to teaching her how to sew and how to bake. But what are the Padre’s motives for calling on Byrd’s skills and will Byrd realise what is being asked of him?

Alongside this we have the character of Jamshed, a rickshaw driver who is living in extreme poverty and crosses paths with Byrd one day. What starts out for Jamshed as a minor revenge of sorts for the way that Byrd treats him, swiftly turns into a tentative friendship, with Jamshed driving Byrd around everyday and Byrd using Jamshed as a confessor of sorts. He feels he can tell him about his life back home and the problems he has faced with dealing with his depression and mental illness. It is through these confidences that we also learn about Wynn, Byrd’s sister who has supported him through his dark times and has worries and anxieties about his trip alone around India.

Carys Davies writes such intriguing characters with whole back stories, fragments of which get drip fed to the reader to enable us to flesh these people out and slot pieces of a jigsaw together. As much as these people are connected they each have their own struggles, their own secrets and their own anxieties. You could take each one of them and study their whole back story, their idiosyncrasies and their desires.

We have Byrd who is ultimately looking for happiness, trying to find glimpses of home in India. He in turn feels settled and yet yearning for more.

We have the Padre who is battling to help the poor as much as he can, help take care of Prescilla and see that her future is secure whilst also feeling terribly alone after the death of his wife whom he still spends hours talking to.

Then there is Prescilla, a girl with a complicated and heartbreaking past who is trying to figure out who she is and what she wants.

And Jamshed, a man who is living in the depths of poverty and trying to carve out a living so that he can help his family with their dreams, particularly his nephew Ravi.

Each one of them is captivating in their own way, much like the whole book. There is a gentle pace and whilst the plot was not the main focus for me, the beautifully descriptive narrative and the examination of these wonderful characters was glorious.

I thoroughly enjoyed this quietly confident novel and would highly recommend it.

Thank you so much to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

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