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The Mission House

LIST PRICE $11.99

From the multiple award-winning author of West and The Redemption of Galen Pike, a captivating and propulsive novel following an Englishman seeking refuge in a remote hill town in India who finds himself caught in the crossfire of local tensions and violence.

Fleeing his demons and the dark undercurrents of contemporary life in the UK, Hilary Byrd takes refuge in a former British hill station in South India. Charmed by the foreignness of his new surroundings and by the familiarity of everything the British have left behind, he finds solace in life’s simple pleasures, travelling by rickshaw around the small town with his driver Jamshed and staying in a mission house beside the local presbytery where the Padre and his adoptive daughter Priscilla have taken Hilary under their wing.

The Padre is concerned for Priscilla’s future, and as Hilary’s friendship with the young woman grows, he begins to wonder whether his purpose lies in this new relationship. But religious tensions are brewing and the mission house may not be the safe haven it seems.

The Mission House boldly and imaginatively explores post-colonial ideas in a world fractured between faith and non-belief, young and old, imperial past and nationalistic present. Tenderly subversive and meticulously crafted, it is a deeply human story of the wonders and terrors of connection in a modern world.

This reading group guide for The Mission House includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Fleeing his demons and the dark undercurrents of contemporary life in the UK, Hilary Byrd takes refuge in a former British hill station in South India. Charmed by the foreignness of his new surroundings and by the familiarity of everything the British have left behind, he finds solace in life’s simple pleasures, traveling by rickshaw around the small town with his driver Jamshed and staying in a mission house beside the local presbytery where the Padre and his adoptive daughter, Priscilla, have taken Hilary under their wing.

The Padre is concerned for Priscilla’s future, and as Hilary’s friendship with the young woman grows, he begins to wonder whether his purpose lies in this new relationship. But religious tensions are brewing, and the mission house may not be the safe haven it seems.

The Mission House boldly and imaginatively explores postcolonial ideas in a world fractured between faith and nonbelief, young and old, imperial past and nationalistic present. Tenderly subversive and meticulously crafted, it is a deeply human story of the wonders and terrors of connection in a modern world.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The Mission House opens with the arrival of middle-aged bachelor Hilary Byrd to the former British hill station Ooty. In what ways is Byrd a sympathetic character? In what ways is he not? Have you ever felt or acted like him during travels of your own?

2. When Byrd first suspects that the Padre has him in mind as a suitor for Priscilla, he is aghast. Later, this feeling of horror is replaced by fear that he has been judged unworthy. What did you make of Byrd’s change of heart? Are his feelings for Priscilla a sign of personal growth, or something else?

3. In pondering the reasons why he takes so well to life in Ooty, Byrd wonders aloud to Jamshed, the auto rickshaw driver, “Perhaps . . . it was the combination of the strange and familiar that suited him. Perhaps there was a balance that was just right for his personality. Perhaps it provided him with a sort of perfect equilibrium” (page 61). What do you think Byrd means by “perfect equilibrium?”

4. When Jamshed revisits diary entries from his early days as an auto rickshaw driver he recalls that he “had no idea how to drive but he was sure he would master it, and he’d been certain then that it would be the beginning of something” (page 47). What do you imagine that “something” was for Jamshed? How does it compare to Ravi and Priscilla’s dream for their own lives?

5. Aside from mentions of internet cafes and emails, there are only a few references to the fact that The Mission House is set in the very recent past. What effect did the novel’s sense of timelessness have for you?

6. One of the two embroidered placards hanging on the wall of the mission house reads Lean Not on Thine Own Understanding. What techniques has Carys Davies used in the writing of this novel to encourage her readers to heed this warning, even if Byrd does not?

7. The other embroidered placard on the wall of the mission house reads I will be your Shield, your High Tower, the Horn of your Salvation. Do you think Byrd finds salvation in the end? What, if anything, can we learn from him?

8. The officer investigating Byrd’s disappearance attributes the circumstances to “so much passion simmering under the surface of things” (page 219). What do you think he means by this?

9. Discuss the roles of religion and faith in The Mission House. Did anything surprise you about the multifaith community Carys Davies depicts?

10. What postcolonial ideas does The Mission House explore? Would you consider the novel to be a work of postcolonial fiction? Why or why not?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. On the acknowledgments page of the book, Carys Davies tells us that her writing was inspired by events she witnessed leading up to the rise to power of Narendra Modi’s BJP in India. Read more about the BJP and Hindu nationalism in newspapers and other news sources. How does this context change your understanding of the novel?

2. Several reviews of The Mission House compare the novel to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, published in 1924. If you’re up for the challenge, read both novels and discuss their parallels and differences.
Photograph by Jonathan Bean

Carys Davies’s debut novel West was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, runner-up for the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize, and winner of the Wales Book of the Year for Fiction. She is also the author of two collections of short stories, Some New Ambush and The Redemption of Galen Pike, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Her other awards include the Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Prize, the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Short Story Award, a Northern Writers’ Award, and a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Born in Wales, she lived and worked for twelve years in New York and Chicago, and now lives in Edinburgh. The Mission House is her most recent novel.

“Luminous...Davies is a writer to watch--and to savor.” —Oprah.com, Best books of February

“A careful, quiet, skillful drama of well-meant misunderstandings and cultural divisions.”  Wall Street Journal

“Davies’ writing is sublime, taking us, in one instance, from a bomb explosion in London to India and saying something about life’s trajectory in a few lines.Toronto Star

“Carys Davies is unlike anyone else I have ever read. She can say in one sublime sentence what most of us struggle to come up with in a page. And The Mission House is another triumph.” —Rachel Joyce, author of Miss Benson's Beetle

“Carys Davies' enthralling fictions carry us across time and continents, and bring interior worlds to life.” —Claire Messud

Lightly yet deftly crafted, hovering in tone somewhere between comedy, tragedy, and fable. Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review

“Davies creates a world that is magical yet daubed with menace. Nuanced characters, lush descriptions of South India, and an incisive look at class and religion make for a rich and layered novel.” Booklist, STARRED review

“This captivating, nuanced tale balances a pervading sense of melancholy with pockets of wry humor. Davies’s masterly elegy is not to be missed.” Publishers Weekly, STARRED review

“[Davies has] triumphed again…Subtle with nuance and alive with immediacy…A masterly achievement.”
The Sunday Times (UK)

“Brilliantly crafted...Having subtly prepared the ground, Davies finally springs the jaws of her plot, revealing, heartbreakingly, to us...what kind of story this really is.”
The Daily Mail (UK)

“Beautifully crafted.”
The Bookseller, Editor's Choice (UK)

“[A] fresh take on a familiar trope…Byrd is like so many others, from beatniks to empire loyalists, who form a connection not with real Indians but with a fantasy of India fashioned out of their own ideological prejudices and psychological needs. The Mission House truthfully reveals that the new realities of India will increasingly have their revenge on these tired old romances.” 
The Guardian (UK)
 
“A delicately political tale.”
Metro (UK)

“Timeless..No words are wasted yet her conjuring of place and character are rich and vivid.”
The Times (UK)

“Unsparing and shocking…At first glance a simply told tale, The Mission House has a twisted brilliance that is mesmerizing.”The Saturday Paper (Australia)

“A compelling read. Carys Davies has an amazing gift for summoning up a place, a situation, the characters. Her skill is that of brevity, nailing a personality with a few lines of dialogue, saying most by saying least.”
—Penelope Lively, author of Moon Tiger

 “An astonishingly assured and gripping piece of work and a worthy follow-up to West. Davies has a voice unlike any I’ve read: clean, otherworldly, eerily original, and capable of devastating effect.”
—Julie Myerson, author of Something Might Happen

“I felt, reading this extraordinary novel, that the thorough oddity of its chief characters, their strange innocence, amounts to a revolt, on our behalf too, against the stupidity, cruelty, fanaticism  and bigoted violence of the world in which they more or less successfully live their eccentric lives.”
—David Constantine, author of In Another Country

The Mission House is an absolute triumph. That rare type of book - resoundingly tender, and gently heart-wrenching. Carys Davies doesn't drop a sentence. I was deeply moved, and spellbound.”
—Cynan Jones, author of The Dig

“Wonderfully written – with the simplicity of fairy tale, the heft of fable and all the human sadness and joy of misfits.” 
Bernard MacLaverty, author of Midwinter Break

“Tender, playful, piercing, light-footed—this is an irresistible novel.”
Michelle de Kretser, author of Questions of Travel and The Hamilton Case

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