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The Mission House

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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.

James Langton trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and later as a musician at the Guildhall School in London. He has worked in radio, film and television, also appearing in theater in England and on Broadway. James was born in York, England and now lives in New York City.

More books from this author: Carys Davies

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