Aliya Whiteley’s debut, The Beauty, was a fungally artful/artfully fungal take on gender and society, that for as safe as it played things thematically, presented ideas bearing repetition, all in wonderfully Weird fashion. Women’s roles and agency in society apparently a hot topic for Whiteley, for her next novel she forged ahead with the same idea, but in a drastically different aesthetic. Set in the English countryside in the early 20th century, The Arrival of Missives (2016, Unsung Stories) tells of the social tug-of-war played with one Shirley, and who the winner is.
The reader is introduced to seventeen year-old Shirley in the village schoolhouse. Only-child to a local farmer, she is smitten by her teacher, Mr. Tiller. Tiller a young man recently returned from the war after being wounded in battle, Shirley takes pity on his disturbed stolidity, wanting to soothe the obvious pain hovering just below the surface. Dreaming of being a teacher too, Shirley applies for a position at a local teacher’s school without her family’s knowledge, all the while pursuing after-hour meetings with Tiller. Witnessing a most disturbing scene standing outside his window one evening, Shirley becomes sucked into a dark world of veiled prophecies and mysterious letters. Tiller’s behavior getting more strange by the day, eventually things snap, and as life in the village is spun upside down, Shirley is forced to take account of herself. But can she?
The Arrival of Missives is the classic story of a young person throwing off the mantle of social expectation to strike their own path in life. In the novel’s case, it’s specific to a young woman rebelling against a patriarchal system. Shirley’s father, teacher, pastor, fiancé’s father—all seem to push her in some direction. Confusing to say the least, it causes the young woman to ponder, and eventually reconcile her own wishes and direction. In seventeen year-old fashion, indeed, reconcile she does.
If there is anything The Arrival of Missives does well, it is to bring the reader into Shirley’s head. Whiteley deftly filtering the perspective, the people around the young woman are presented through differing lenses, the view changing as the story progresses, her initial view of a person not always the same as the final. Complementing this approach, the story expands nicely outwards, the plot escalating in interest-building fashion.
Whiteley nailing down the story elements of The Arrival of Missives nicely, it’s left to ideology and narrative choices for issues to arise. The ending, while capturing perfectly the young person’s idyll of freedom and change, fails to entirely close out the themes of social/male obligation and expectation. A bit of a cop out, the conclusion offers no hint of the eventual sacrifices Shirley, as we all, male or female, must make to the common good if we are to fit in and move society forward. There is no mention of her parents in old age, and how they cope. There is no mention of her own future family, her expectations for them, nor the eventual conflicts and compromises she and her future husband will need to make raising said family. There is not even mention of how she might survive after the climactic scene. It’s enough that she has a man, a horse, and the open road, which is a bit short-sighted.
But the ending is not the only contrived part of The Arrival of Missives. By setting the story in rural, early 20th century England, Whiteley stacks the deck in her thematic favor. Thematic cherrypicking, it’s only natural that patriarchal authority was very strong post WWI. More challenging would have been to set the story in 21st century London, and have Shirley deal with the gender dynamics that influence contemporary obligation and expectation in society. The pastor's influence would disappear, as would the importance of needing to carry on the family farm, the male teacher would be significantly less-likely, as would the all-male teacher’s board, etc. By doing so, the novel would have been far more relevant. By contrast, The Beauty, which uses a fantastical (i.e. symbolic) setting, transcends era, and thereby offers more pertinent commentary on gender dynamics.
The final questionable choice made in The Arrival of Missives—and it’s a question I find myself asking more and more these days—is the usage of the fantastic. Realist for the first third of the story, there is the sudden intrusion of an otherworldy something into Shirley’s life. Usage of the fantastic is not in itself an issue. It’s how this otherworldy something is developed and presented. Muddying the sub-textual waters, as Shirley interacts directly with it later in the story, the reader is forced to ask: is it to be taken as a real element of Whiteley’s world? If yes, who then can blame the characters for acting as they do? This in turn undermines the novel’s ability to accomplish its goals. If no, is it symbolic? If symbolic, why then don’t other characters who operate along similar lines with similar misconceptions have similar afflictions? Whiteley never answers any of these questions definitively, and by doing so makes the story’s commentary tentative. Were the story to have been presented along entirely realist lines (or the fantastical element used differently), the plot would never have drawn theme into question, leading to a more coherent agenda. The otherworldy something is interesting at the surface level for sure, just not certain it distracts more than adds to the sub-text.
In the end, The Arrival of Missives is an initially sedate, later wild tale of one young woman’s rise to self-empowerment. While I personally believe The Beauty to be the stronger of Whiteley’s two books thus far, in terms of story and battle cry, for sure there are a lot of readers who themselves would feel empowered by Missives. Have a try yourself.