Scott Manley Hadley reviews
The Arrival of Missives (Unsung Stories) by Aliya Whiteley.
Hello. I don’t know if I’m expected to introduce myself here or if I should launch straight into discussion of the book. However, as I’ve been hired off the back of my self-indulgent reviewing style and because the guys at Open Pen can just delete any paragraphs they don’t like, I’m going to do it anyway. Welcome to my world.
My name is Scott. I am bald and under thirty, so wear a lot of hats. Often simultaneously.
I have a dog and a cat and am currently in the midst of a very enjoyable psychological upswing after years of empty, v middle class, whiney depression. Or should that be “wine”y depression. Ho ho ho. (I sometimes self identify as an alcoholic, because addiction’s cool, right?)
Welcome, friends – we are friends, right?, I was promised I’d get friends out of this – to the world of “autobiographic literary lifestyle blogging”.[i] These are the muddy waters we’re wading into, in our special little booties and garish waterproof jackets. The film of the water – which we walk on, christlike – will be made of new books from independent publishers, and we will wander across it in an indie lit reverie, occasionally sticking our heads below the surface and breathing the murk in deep. We can survive both above and below the water, friends. We have gills, now. I have given you gills. If we spend enough time together, maybe those gills will turn into wings.[ii]
That last paragraph was an example of an analogy getting out of hand. This bitchy little segue moves me onto my very first review for Open Pen: Aliya Whiteley’s intriguing – but flawed – novella, The Arrival of Missives.
A lot of people say that what makes a good novel great is its use of detail. What Whiteley excels at is this – the small West Country village she creates is peopled with believable people, living believable post-WW1 lives, speaking about things they probably would have spoken about and wearing the right kind of clothes. Their concerns are believable, the coming of modernity – cars, electricity, votes for women – all of this lurks gently out of reach, but there, felt. Every person has a life that is etched out and written about quickly, decisively, neatly. The shadow of the war hangs heavy, and the shadow of the war hangs dark. Shirley Fearn, our narrator, is a 17 year old woman hoping for more from life than just being a housewife on the family farm; the schoolmaster, Mr Tiller, is no longer “a real man” due to the injuries he sustained and he is terribly broken; whilst Daniel Redmore, the love interest, is the oldest male in the village who was too young to be summoned to the war, so he feels all the pressure of a lost generation of men and wants to be different from what came before.
These three are the central characters, and we see Shirley try and fail to enter a teaching college in the nearest big town, we see Daniel reject his family blacksmith business but still fall short of his ideals and feel trapped in tradition, and we see Mr Tiller – the character whose narrative treatment is the real let down in the book – admit to Shirley that he believes the shrapnel in his stomach is a magical rock from the future that contains a message begging him to do what he can in his time to prevent a future apocalypse. What the future message has told him is that making sure Shirley and Daniel hook up and reproduce will save the human race. It is, of course, ridiculous and hyperbolic, and Shirley as narrator dismisses it with a readerly “he’s probably just mad” when it is first mentioned, after she’s seen the piece of rock glint silver in the candlelight.
The book lost me when Shirley touched the part of the rock that protrudes from Mr Tiller’s stomach and she was transported into the grand, dystopian visions he had told her about. She too was able to see the importance of Daniel not having children with the other eligible young woman in the village, she too watched colonisation of a foreign planet and then its later destruction, but she watched the same message with a distant eye, noticing that the “dream future” Mr Tiller sought to help stabilise was one formed entirely of old white men. Shirley breaks off her engagement with Daniel and so Mr Tiller murders the young woman who would have spawned Daniel’s evil babies and skips town. He is influenced by a magic sci-fi rock wedged inside his torso, but he is sane. He is a murderer, but he has done it for reasons that he believes are for the best based on actual evidence from the future. Isn’t the story of a shell-shocked man who THINKS the future of the world depends on which of his school pupils get romantically involved far more interesting than one about a man who ACTUALLY IS receiving messages from the future? Isn’t him being singled out by accident by a shadowy futuristic organisation the dream scenario for someone whose soul has been destroyed in the trenches? Whiteley could at least have left it a bit more ambiguous – as an out and out truth it demystified his mystery injury (does he still have a cock?) and dehumanised his pain, which was otherwise explored and expressed in a very real way.
This was a real knack of Whiteley’s here, one or two sentence anecdotes of death and grief that spoke deeply of pain. Daniel’s father lost his faith in the trenches, another family lost three out of its four sons, and the fourth almost has a horrific accident whilst the village sets up the May Day celebrations. He doesn’t, and Whiteley captures the communal, public relief: everyone watching understands the boy’s importance to his parents and each of them is terrified of what would happen had he not caught himself after he began falling from the top of the maypole.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, Shirley is a strong female character in a very patriarchal world, and we see and feel the pain of her struggle against the status quo. Daniel, too, is too sensitive for his age and not treated like “a real man” either. In fact, he is so naive that he fears pregnancy after jizzing on Shirley’s thigh and it is him telling the whole town about this that causes their scandal engagement in the first place. But this makes sense, this is sexual repression and emotional repression in an era of great upheaval. Mr Tiller’s rock being magical REMOVES humanity from him, detaches the reader from his troubles. And that’s sad, and disappointing. Because Whiteley is able to write paragraphs of moving war-related tragedy over and over again as asides, yet seemed to lack the faith in herself to hold together the thread of an in depth one over the course of a novel. But this is an error in plotting, which is only a part of what makes a piece of writing into a work of literature.
The Arrival of Missives has much in its favour: it is regularly moving, it is historically and politically engaged and it is detailed in its presentation of a small community. It may occasionally forget when it is set – there is a gentle inconsistency with patterns of speech, though this could be argued as symbolic of the era’s many changing ideas and its own chronological setting between the Victorian era and modernity.
I enjoyed it, on the whole, but I felt more than a little disappointed by the overt reveal of the rock, as it removed many things from the denouement, but added nothing. I’ve read much worse.
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at Triumphofthenow.com, tweets @Scott_Hadley and Instagrams – most frequently of the three – @smanleyhadley. He likes mammals, good books and asparagus. He dislikes bad coffee, sadness and snakes.
[i] Don’t tweet in and say you didn’t feel like you were getting that, because I made up the term and can apply it to myself however I choose. The power of language.
[ii] If the gills DO turn into wings they WILL remain on the neck.