The Arrival Of Missives is set in a small village in the years following the First World War. The community is very traditional with the same families having worked the land for generations, and men and women keeping to their strictly defined roles. We meet our narrator, Shirley Fearn, when she is sixteen years old. Singled out as the oldest student in the village school and also by her family’s landowning status, precocious Shirley believes she is ‘marked out for something else’, some higher purpose than the role of wife that she seems to look down on in her own mother. Shirley believes the War’s aftermath will allow great social changes for women and she will be in the vanguard. Encouraged by the overwhelming crush she has on her teacher, injured ex-soldier Mr Tiller, she envisions herself also as a teacher working and living by his side to guide future generations of boys (not girls).
I particularly liked Shirley’s breathless enthusiasm for her plan and its childlike naivete. Of course Mr Tiller will return her love and she will be accepted to college! Against the backdrop of the annual May Day preparations we follow Shirley’s attempts to both follow her dreams and to make Mr Tiller notice her. As we only see the world through Shirley’s eyes, I found it difficult to really get a feel for the other characters. Her strong personality is so much to the fore that even someone as important to the tale as Mr Tiller seems shadowy and unclear. As an older man and with a teacher’s responsibility he is understandably reticent with Shirley which made it difficult for me to buy into his sudden decision to reveal to her the supernatural secret of his war injuries.
The Arrival Of Missives is interestingly written throughout and I liked Whiteley’s detailed observations of everyday lives at the time. The mixed-age schoolroom has almost completely vanished from Britain now, as has the acceptance that a person would remain in an area because their family had always done so. The repeating motif of a three man jury is a neat plot device to reinforce a message of women’s desires being ignored and irrelevant and Shirley’ realisations of her true purpose to both Mr Tiller and to her family are important and well-portrayed moments. I was convinced by her emotional growth into a woman as the book progresses which is nicely contrasted against her mother’s resignation. I haven’t read any of Whiteley’s other writing so don’t know if meshing science fiction and historical fiction is a recurring theme of her work, but in this novel I am undecided whether it really works. When I consider the science fiction story line in isolation I quite like the idea, but reconciling it with the existing narrative required quite a leap of faith.
This means science fiction, fantasy and horror, but especially the fuzzy bits between these genres: hard and soft sci-fi, high and low fantasy, slipstream, alternative history, steampunk, cyberpunk, weird fiction and anything else that defies expectation.