Books

Carys Davies
The Mission House

Nobody reads “The Frog Prince” for tips on turning frogs into princes, just as nobody reads “Rumpelstiltskin” for clues on how to spin gold out of straw. These bedtime stories for children are about something else entirely: greed, the need to keep promises – take your pick.

The Mission House is also a bedtime story but with a postmodern flourish: for all its grotesqueries, it subverts traditional fairy stories in mischievous ways.

The novel’s setting looks deceptively true to life – the Indian hill station of Ootacamund in all its overcrowded shabbiness – but it would be naive to read Carys Davies’ latest novel for lessons in British colonial history, as you might A Passage to India, although many no doubt will.

In this Welsh writer’s previous book, the dazzling novella West, set in early 19th-century America, Davies made it fairly clear early on that we were listening to a fable being narrated, not a “true story”. In other words, West was a metafiction that parodied the telling of true stories for a purpose. So rural Pennsylvania looks believable enough, as do the Missouri River and the sinister oddballs the hero encounters on his mad mission to find a prehistoric monster surviving in the western United States, but you read this tale as “history” at your peril. The electrifying ending, so outrageously unbelievable it’s perfect, drives the point home: you’ve been reading a superbly invented metafiction. It has nothing to do with “the West”, it has to do with whether you should stay at home with “the small and familiar” or venture out into “the large and unknown” and live by your imagination (among other, more difficult things).

The Mission House, which is also a metafiction – although, mercifully, not of the suffocating Borgesian kind – touches on the same question. Davies’ answer to the question is once again unsparing and shocking.

At the heart of The Mission House, however, there lies buried a story that is all too true: the incineration of an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons by Hindu fundamentalists in Orissa (now Odisha) in 1999. Is it a novel about this murder? Of course not. And although the setting is vividly evoked, it is about India only in passing.

Davies reveals her fabulist’s hand more gradually than in West. A little way into the story the two main characters – the middle-aged London librarian Hilary Byrd, on holiday in Tamil Nadu; and Priscilla, the padre’s maid at the mission house where Byrd is staying – read Grimm’s Fairy Tales together, including “Rumpelstiltskin” and “The Frog Prince”, just to make sure we get the vitally important point about the genre.

In recounting Byrd’s adventures in Ooty, from the moment he steps off the train to his dramatic final moments in the town, Davies subverts absolutely everything. The result is in every sense outlandish.

Romantic fables are ruthlessly undermined: love objects are not transformed. Hilary Byrd, who has never “kissed” anyone in his life, is so psychologically damaged that he actually can’t breathe, while Priscilla, with her mismatched legs and thumbless hands, is not magically transformed by love. In this particular tale – even when Priscilla goes off into the sunset with her clownish hairdresser paramour and his horse, imagining she’s Patsy Cline – love always ends badly. And, as in children’s fairy tales, nobody seems to even have as much as a sexual thought.

The clichéd ways the Indian hill station is constructed in the European – and perhaps upper-class Indian – imaginations are also demolished. This “little corner of England” in the Nilgiri Hills, as Ooty was once called, with its hydrangea bushes and Dorothy Perkins roses, where the upper echelons of colonial society took refuge from the claggy heat and clamour of the lower reaches, shouting “jolly good show” to one another and dining on Scottish salmon in the club, is now a grubby shambles like any other Indian town – only cooler. There is nothing at all to do now in this “heaven”. Like the characters in many a fairy tale, cursed by some malevolent goblin to repeat a basic action, Hilary Byrd simply goes round and round Ooty for months in a rickshaw taxi, visiting the same handful of “sights” day after day – the botanical gardens, the Savoy Hotel, the racecourse, the assembly rooms, the library – wondering if he feels at home or foreign, happy or alone.

During the Raj, everyone in “Snooty Ooty” went to church. In Davies’ parodic version of modern Ooty, there is no “Big Man in the sky” for any of the main characters, from Byrd right down to the autorickshaw driver, the maid and her beau. Every last one of them is an atheist. Embracing the wrong religion in the new Ooty, however, makes the bad fairies lurking down by the railway tracks very angry indeed.

It will be tempting for readers at this historical moment to see if they can sniff out a few postcolonial themes. What sort of Indian has taken over Ooty now? Can foreigners ever have authentic relations with Indian drivers and servants, or the beggars in the street? Yes, they can, at least in this tale (and in the experience of anyone who has spent time in India), but the theme underlying all these infatuations and stabs at happiness, all these conversations with padres and guitar-strumming hairdressers, is something else entirely. It is that life is not a fairy tale.

“Only in fairy tales were there sets of tasks or barriers that were eventually accomplished or overcome,” Hilary realises, “only in fairy tales were there spells that were cast and then lifted.” For most of us the curse is never broken and we end up “working continuously with poor result”, as do most of the characters in this book, Indian and European. We make the wrong decisions day after day.

At first glance a simply told tale, The Mission House has a twisted brilliance that is mesmerising. The final lines, however, will shatter its thrall.

Robert Dessaix

Text, 256pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2020 as "Carys Davies, The Mission House".

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Reviewer: Robert Dessaix