Lead Review

  • Book: The Mission House
  • Location: Ooty (Udagamandalam)
  • Author: Carys Davies

Review Author: tripfiction

Location

Content

The Sunday Times cites The Mission House as their “Novel of the Year 2020“. And if that isn’t an accolade, then I don’t know what is!

Hilary Byrd, from Petts Wood UK, arrives on the Niligir slow train from Mettupalayam via Coonoor into Ooty Station, after a 29 mile journey that, going uphill takes around 5 hours and back down only 3.5. The cog railway took 16 years to build the track and in colonial times brought the Raj grandees up to cooler climes, where they could spend more comfortable months than if they remained ‘in the plains’. The city still has remnants of the period, to wit Higginbotham’s Book Shop, Charring Cross (a junction on one of the main roads) and yes it does have the extra ‘r’, St Stephen’s Church, which presumably is the inspiration for St Peter’s in the novel.

Back to Mr Byrd, who is in his mid 50s. He has left his home and sister behind and is looking for some spiritual and psychological rejuvenation and healing, and thus stays in the mission house of the local presbytery for minimal rent, where the Padre and his adoptive daughter Priscilla take him under their wing.

He enjoys the simple pleasures of being high in the hills, being taken around – day after day – by his regular driver Jamshed, who ferries him wherever he wants in his auto-rickshaw. Hilary looks, observes and imbibes the city sights, and then returns of an evening to his basic quarters. This is a simple fable of our times.

The Padre is concerned for Priscilla’s future, she has disabilities and he wants to ensure that she is taken care of when his time on earth is done. Hilary and Priscilla spend a lot of time together, he teaches her English and sewing on a very old sewing machine, and together with the Padre, they cook English cakes and scones. Hilary, of course, feels a growing sense of responsibility towards her. We know fairly early on, however, that this low key life cannot endure.

What makes this an enjoyable novel? Well, for me in particular a revisit to Ooty. I was there exactly one year ago and it took me right back, to the rose garden, the wonderful train and the botanical gardens (which were repurposed and initially designed as a place to grow vegetables). Soon the British were importing plants and trees from home, and indeed the cooler climes must have felt so familiar for the British stationed in the oppressive heat of India. There is also a market, to which Hilary often goes and at one point tumbles down some steps.

The author dabbles with the impact of colonialism and religion, race, disability and mental health issues and takes her time to develop the story, which might feel quite slow and ponderous for some readers. The ending – after the painstaking and leisurely journeying to the tea plantations, the lake and around the city roads in Jamshed’s company – feels quite abrupt, it’s as though the auto-rickshaw journey has come to a halt at a dead end.

Interestingly the author chooses to use the old Raj name of Ooty, instead of Udhagamandalam, which may be for the simplest of reasons that the current name is rather a mouthful for English speakers. And yet, I wonder about her motives, as this is very much the story of a white man who comes to this hill station to salve his soul and he is doing it on his terms.

I relished being taken back to the city, vividly imagining the story against a setting that felt familiar and also proved to be a wonderful trip for me. This is perfect literary tourism and, of course, if you are heading to the town, then this is a great read for a 4-d experience!

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