Published by Unsung Stories
Aliya Whiteley’s short novel begins with the sentence ‘I cannot sleep’ and ends with a stirring declaration of intent. In the hundred or so intervening pages we follow the development of Shirley Fearn, a schoolgirl who nurses a love for the teacher at her village school, the appropriately named Mr Tiller, who has been horrifically wounded in the First World War, recently ended (‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury’, says a village gossip). Shirley’s relationship with Mr Tiller, the exact nature of his injury and what it portends, and her own growth into awareness form the backbone of the novel, which is set in an isolated English rural community.
The Arrival of Missives bears a strong resemblance to Patrick McGrath’s 1993 novel Dr Haggard’s Disease, with which it shares a startling number of plot points: a man seriously and strangely injured in battle, his tortured flesh held together by a foreign body; a physical metamorphosis; an unstable psyche that claims special knowledge but is perhaps ignorant of its full implications; the postponement of revelation amid the unravelling of obsession. McGrath’s novel is longer but is also relatively short. Whiteley’s novel ventures into territory of its own via the melding of literary fiction with other genres, among them science fiction (loosely conceived): David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome sprang to my mind at one important point, but there must be a host of more recent literary and cinematic parallels. The brevity of The Arrival of Missives is significant for, like an argument of insidious intent, the novel leads to one overwhelming question that absolutely demands an answer. If the book were longer, the tension of waiting for that answer would be dissipated; we need to read The Arrival of Missives for a certain amount of time (a few hours) and no longer. Aliya Whiteley knows this and has wisely written the novel as short as it needs to be.
For me, the novel’s reliance in this way on what might be called genre curiosity is a weakness: when answers to the ‘what next?’ of generic plot lines are finally revealed, they relieve our tension but invariably leave us feeling rather underwhelmed. The Arrival of Missives does not solve this problem, but it does have far more interesting facets: its depictions of village life, the interactions of characters across social and class lines, the transition from childhood to adulthood and, above all, the proto-feminism of Shirley – these would have been more than adequate to sustain the novel on their own.
The intensely human proclivity to employ manipulation, cruelty and destruction in order to protect a vision of the Good is literally embodied by Mr Tiller, who is in fact as morally rudderless as any prophet who believes himself to possess a monopoly on the truth. Shirley’s (re)evaluation of her teacher is largely the result of her own (re)interpretation of the mission with which he claims he has been entrusted. What, for him, is a future paradise is, for her, an exclusionary utopia dreamed up by an unholy trinity of plausible old men (one of several mutually reinforcing male trinities in the novel). The lesson she learns and imparts is an old one but it always needs repeating: people should not be instrumentalized – rendered less than human – for the sake of a hypothetical future state.
I know from my own attempt (in my novel The Long Voyage Home) to approximate the cadences and vocabularies of social classes in the 1930s how hard it can be to sustain: formalities of speech and polite conventions can so easily sound stilted and awkward to modern ears. There is in my opinion a pervasive stiltedness to the writing in The Arrival of Missives. In particular, Shirley’s somewhat pompous, awkward speech puzzles me: is it adolescent precociousness, a marker of her intellectual superiority or a semi-biblical language meant to signify her own incipient leanings to messianism (it is she, after all, who utters the final sentence of the novel)? This use of language is as much intriguing as it is problematic. I have no idea if ‘window of opportunity’ and ‘ongoing’ had been coined or were in general usage at the time, but their ubiquity in recent years means they had a jarring effect – on me, at least. Similarly, Shirley sometimes thinks in clichés as she ‘climbs into bed’ and ‘quakes with fear’. She also has things to say that are a little too on the nose: ‘I wonder now if there is not an innate bitterness at the heart of education, which always comes with hidden meanings and a high cost.’
Whether it is despite this or because of it, The Arrival of Missives is an immensely readable book. It contains delightfully light characterizations in which people are encapsulated by a phrase, a tone of voice, a gesture. And, towards the end of the novel, intentionally or not (what does it matter?), there is an image straight out of Hamlet that provides beauty and horror in equal measure.
The Arrival of Missives is a serious book and a fine accomplishment: literary, often superbly and enviably evocative, and with interesting things to say about gender expectations, social conventions, and how individuals can become deformed by the pressure to conform.
I am also pleased to mention that this is a handsome and nicely designed paperback that has been well copyedited and proofread.