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The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whitely

Title: Arrival of Missives
Author: Aliya Whitely
Publisher: Unsung Stories
Year of Publication: 2016

Premise: 

In the aftermath of the Great War, seventeen-year-old Shirley Fearn dreams of becoming Mr Tiller’s – a disfigured war veteran – fellow school teacher and wife. However, Shirley’s plans do not coincide with her parents’ wishes or the conventions of her rural English hometown. In her attempts to realise her fantasies, Shirley accidentally discovers that Mr Tiller harbours a strange, dark secret. In a horrendously inexplicable battlefield accident, the soldier was sent an ominous message from the future that is part prophecy, part warning. The physical manifestation of this missive is embedded in his wounded body. As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, Shirley must decide whether to assist her beloved Mr Tiller in his disturbing mission, obey her parents, or forge her own brave new path.

“Rather like Mr Tiller’s rock, some thoughts land upon you with a crash and sink in, and no power on Earth will dislodge them.”

***MINOR SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW***

General thoughts: 

Pretty much a perfect little oddity of a novella. An intriguing, compelling story told in masterfully elegant, poetic prose that makes for a damn fine read. Proof – if further proof is still needed – that genre fiction can be just as literary and artistic as any Booker/Pulitzer/other-literary-prize winning masterpiece.

3 reasons I particularly enjoyed The Arrival of Missives:

  1. Little novel, big ideas – For a 120-page novella, Missives certainly packs one helluva thought-provoking punch. The central through-line explores the concept of free will, and how choices one makes are affected by and, in turn, affect societies entrenched in their time-tested ways. Delve a bit deeper and you’ll find the book tackles questions concerning patriarchal ideology, gender roles, PTSD. There’s religion battling pagan ritual, and the two joining forces to battle the economic and sexual autonomy of women. There’s a society in a state of growing pains, hankering for its innocent pre-war ideals, desperate to keep the tides of progress at bay. And on a more meta level, Whitely is arguably grappling with that age-old question of whether genre can be literary and vice versa (and despite what most of the literati might claim, of course they bloody can!). There really is a lot going on every page as well as between the lines here, but it never feels unwieldy, esoteric or abstract. And even if you take nothing more out of Missives than a tale of a young woman coming to grips with her personal desires which do not conform with the limits imposed on her by the world at large, then this novella still makes for a thoroughly entertaining read.
  2. Makes the rural weird – I enjoy otherworldly, fantastic settings as much as any genre loving geek. However, I find it is usually those subtly strange settings that really stick in my mind long after I have put the book back on the shelf. The central conceit in Missives is certainly weird, but it is not overly outré. Whitely administers just the right wattage of a science-fiction zap to turn a pastoral Hardy-esque English village, all fresh fields and blue skies, into an uncanny twilight zone. And it is all the more sinister and beguiling for it.
  3. Malleable metaphors – There is a breathtaking fluidity to Whitely’s metaphors in Missives. She sets them up, breaks them down, attaches different meanings to the same image to create a rich tapestry of interconnected and colliding ideas. For example, rocks begin as a symbol for unmovable steadfast ways, for Truth, then later become a motif for cold-heartedness, and the crumbling away of truths, and the power of new ideas (see blockquote above). War, as expected, encapsulates innocence lost, a crisis in masculinity, the violence of progress. But then Whitely transforms war into the battle of the sexes as the genders try to find new roles and identities in the post-war world. Finally war becomes a magnificent symbol of love and lust, culminating in this most beautiful cluster of sentences: “… it is a battle we share, locked as opponents, urging each other onwards, linked and driving forward, grim with purpose… For if this is a battle I am winning; to make him move this way upon me is a victory that I feel deep inside.”

A minor gripe: The Arrival of Missives is very much Shirley Fearn’s story. Yet the crux of the young heroine’s personal journey hinges on the enigmatic Mr Tiller, whose presence looms large at the start of the novella, but who becomes increasingly side-lined as the narrative progresses. I would have loved to have to spent just a little more time with the traumatised soldier, now-school teacher, to better understand the man’s past, the inner workings of his mind. Did the transcendental mission bestowed upon Mr Tiller drastically alter his pre-war beliefs and ideologies, or did it merely strengthen and enforce them to manic proportions? We never really get to find out.

Read if: you enjoy sci-fi/weird fiction with brains rather than brawny spectacle.

Avoid if: I honestly couldn’t think of any good reason why anyone should avoid this novella. It’s extremely well-written, intelligent, and has a cast of great characters. And if you are someone who usually avoids sci-fi/weird/speculative fiction, then, given its brevity, I could hardly recommend a better jumping-off point than The Arrival of Missives.

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