The Arrival of Missives could be classed, amongst other things, as a coming-of-age story, a fantasy novel, soft environmentalism, an anti-authoritarian fable and a sci-fi-tinged forbidden love story. This might sound like an unwieldy melange, but Aliya Whitely manages to stitch it together with a strong narrative.
Set in a small English village in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the story is told from the viewpoint of Shirley Fearn, a girl about to turn 17, who is infatuated with Mr Miller, her teacher. Mr Miller has returned from the war, and is gossiped about by the local women, who pronounce, ‘He isn’t a real man, of course, not after that injury.’ The nature of Mr Miller’s injury is discovered by Shirley, and it’s more fantastical than anyone could possibly suspect. It would ruin the story somewhat to go into the nature of the injury, but it’s not giving too much away to say that it renders Mr Miller the bearer of a message which concerns Shirley directly. The message warns of a terrible fate which can only be avoided if Shirley gives up her freedom of choice and agrees to follow a path Mr Miller proscribes for her. As Mr Miller tells Shirley:
“I’ve no doubt that what I’m about to say will seem very strange to you, but on such small matters rests the fate of the world.”
Even within the fantastical framework of the rest of the novel, having the stakes so high feels melodramatic and out of place. A slightly less momentous scenario might have served the purposes of the novel better. The agonising choice of whether or not to go against our instinct and follow what appears to be good advice from a person we trust, perhaps even love, is of course a resonant dilemma for many readers. But when the fate of the world gets tossed into the arena, it feels like the author has turned the volume up to 11 for fear that we might not understand the import of the struggle. The themes within the novel are incredibly fertile areas for literature to mine – the pursuit of personal freedom and the development of a sceptical attitude towards traditional figures of authority – but the personal and human struggle of the main character risk being drowned out by the overblown conceit of the story.
It’s interesting that The Arrival of Missives is set during the time that Modernism was starting to become the dominant paradigm in art. Joyce and Woolf write in such a way that the old certainties are discarded in the very writing itself; grand narratives are dead, the time has come for us to retreat from these overarching explanations of life and history, and relentlessly investigate the inside of our own heads. The Arrival of Missives seems to get it topsy-turvy: for the modernists, the world had already ended. The experience of the war meant that traditional sources of authority became deeply suspect. But for Aliya Whitely’s protagonist it’s the prospect of the world being destroyed at some point in the future which leads her to question whether or not she can trust those who claim to know the truth. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the novel, but rather an observation that the same themes can be explored in a much less Hollywood-esque way.
The Arrival of Missives does several things very well. Shirley is an engaging character and the coming-of-age aspect of the story is both emotionally affecting and convincing. A strong sense of place emerges too; the landscape and the social relations of a small English rural community seem by turns to be idyllic and restrictive, which is the perfect setting for Shirley’s existential drama to play out against.
For this reader, however, that drama was a little too heightened, and this tended to overshadow some of the more complex and engaging themes of the book.
Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Bath, where he is studying an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Along with his partner, he co-runs The Rookery in the Bookery, a website dedicated to the review of literature in translation. You can also find Adam on Twitter @therookbookery.