“There are deep roots to May Day, stretching back through the centuries. I find I have a taste for power in all its forms, […] and what is more powerful than a Queen?” (p.76)
This is the second novella by Aliya Whiteley that I’ve read this year. The first one was her stunning story The Beauty (2014) which left me in awe of its invention, its beautiful prose, and its genuine strangeness. The Arrival of Missives is not quite as strange as The Beauty, but it is equally as fascinating once it draws you in.
Set in a small village in England just after the First World War, this is the story of Shirley Fearn, the teenage daughter of a successful land-owning farmer. She attends the village school and has a crush on its teacher, the injured war veteran Mr. Tiller. Shirley dreams of escaping the traditional, sleepy village life and is exploring the possibility of training to become a teacher in a school in the next town.
“The land is green and sweet. The walk to school – a few miles from the farm to the outskirts of the village – is easy in late spring, and these are my father’s fields upon which I tread.” (p.3)
The narrative begins slowly as Whiteley introduces Shirley and her quiet village life. She is a bright pupil and enjoys her education, not only because of her feelings for her teacher. Her obvious intelligence means she doesn’t quite fit into the expected roles of young women growing up in her village. As the village prepares for the approaching May Day festivities, Shirley experiences a stunning revelation regarding Mr. Tiller.
It was enjoyable to experience the narrative from Shirley’s point of view. She is a strong character with hidden depth, skillfully written by Whiteley. Following the path of Shirley’s self-discovery, her burgeoning independence, becomes more and more gripping as the tale proceeds. Her journey from love-struck village girl to the person she has become by the end of the story is beautifully realised by the author.
“I smile at him. I am beginning to see he is just as innocent of life as I am. And this is not his fault, none of it. Truth be told, the more time I spend with him the more I appreciate that I could love him.” (p.87)
In reviewing The Arrival of Missives, I have purposefully limited the details of my synopsis. This wonderful book needs to be experienced with minimal foreknowledge for maximum enjoyment. It is not simply a tale of young love in a small English village. It is a story about roles and choices, power and fate; a story of rebelling against weighty expectations to take control of one’s life. It’s also a story of the fantastic breaking through into the everyday, and how one might react to it. Do you run from it, or do you embrace it?