Monday 4 April 2016

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

The Arrival of Missives is a novella set in a small rural village in post-WW1 England, where Shirley is a girl on the cusp of adulthood. Even though the main characters are youngsters, this is not a children's or YA story. I'm sure young people can read and enjoy it, but it's written for a mature audience, with some mature themes.

Shirley is madly in love with the local teacher, a man whose wounds in battle are rumoured to have unmanned him. However, her parents and most of the village have a different future in mind for her. Mr Tiller, the teacher, does not feature at all in those plans. Things take a surprise turn when Shirley decides to visit Mr Tiller's home, where she inadvertently spies on him as he undresses. Beneath his shirt, he is stranger than she could ever have imagined. After that fateful encounter, Mr Tiller, too, tries to direct Shirley's fate...

There's currently a vogue for stories about young women chafing against the restrictions of their societies while embroiled in some magical adventure. (Or perhaps it just seems that way to me, after reading The Wolf in the Attic, The Lie Tree and Every Heart a Doorway in fairly quick succession). However, The Arrival of Missives stands out from the crowd of such stories: it is shorter and yet it has more impact than most.

Every person in this story is completely authentic and human. No one is just a cipher, and there's a sense that everyone has their own life to live, beyond the appearances they make in Shirley's tale. Post-WW1 rural Britain is realised perfectly. It's a very different place from the settings readers are used to. Shirley doesn't live in a servant-filled mansion, nor in a town. Instead, she lives on a farm just outside a village, and her experience of "the city" is a trip to Taunton. Her geographical world might be quite small, but Shirley is a daydreamer with a huge imagination and significant ambition.

Growing up as a girl in the 1920s was not so different from growing up in Victorian times. The values were quite conservative, villages were "communities" (i.e. everyone has their nose in everyone else's business), and, though WW1 has shown women to be capable of work, they were still expected to be mothers and wives, rather than independent people. On the other hand, the legacy of the war has shaped Shirley's expectations: she is adamant that she will go to college and become a teacher, so that she can change the world by shaping the minds of generations of children. This, too, does not fit with anyone else's plans for her.

Because it is so short, every word and every scene in The Arrival of Missives counts. An impressive richness of inter-human relationships is infused into this novella. To give an example, Shirley, like most people, has a mother. In a book about girls growing into women, you'd expect the most immediate female role model to be relevant. Yet, comparing the novels I've been reading, the result is striking: the girl in The Wolf in the Attic has lost her mother. The girl in The Lie Tree has a deeply unpleasant mother who verges on caricature for most of the book. The many girls in Every Heart a Doorway are, in every way that matters, orphans. Meanwhile, Shirley in The Arrival of Missives might share only three or four scenes with her mother, but somehow those few scenes paint a richer, more authentic relationship, and Shirley learns to understand more about her mother without everything being spelled out in dialogue than any of the girls in the other books.

For a story involving supernatural elements, The Arrival of Missives is very subtle and restrained. Quite often in such tales, the supernatural element is there to give the heroine permission to do outrageous things. The Lie Tree gives a license to spin tall tales and deceive entire communities. The Wolf in the Attic lures the girl into the wilderness. Shirley, on the other hand, experiences more mundane little rebellions: a few snippy comments and a little experimentation. The supernatural might nudge her into taking risks, but they are the sort of risks that real girls in the real world take every day. Few novels balance the extraordinary with the subtle in such a masterful way.

Despite being accomplished and literary, the plot moves briskly, the storylines are engaging, and the tale is not just intelligent, but entertaining. In short, The Arrival of Missives is a great achievement, and a novella I'd heartily recommend.

(I'd recommend Aliya Whiteley's previous novel, The Beauty, even more: it is perhaps the best book I've read last year, a genuine masterpiece)

Rating: 5/5

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