The Arrival Of Missives by Aliya Whiteley: Unsung Stories 9 May 2016

Having recently read and reviewed The Beauty and Winter and now The Arrival of Missives from Unsung Stories, it seems fair to say that this bold little publisher is pioneering a new breed of British sci-fi-fantasy: one that’s deeply rooted in the land and lore of these isles. Readers who enjoy fantastical escapes into both the worlds of future apocalypse and ancient folklore will appreciate the innovative tangling of the two in these three titles; but as any reader of these genres will appreciate, it’s not just escapism. Each of these novellas asks big questions about our future, our past, and our present.
Aliyah Whiteley’s two books, The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives both question issues of gender and the construction of (historical) narratives, while Missives also tackles racism, the canon, and illusions of authority.  Deeply embedded in literary culture, The Arrival of Missives explores the integrity of the epistle, while The Beauty similarly destabilises oral storytelling.  Whiteley is a writer who is continuing to grow in confidence in challenging the status quo and finding inventive and imaginative ways to do that. In Unsung Stories, she has found a publisher who seems perfectly matched in sharing her vision and nurturing her talents.
Arrival of Missives
Some challenges remain, however.
Here’s a review from our reader Stephanie Jane:

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.

About the Publisher:
Unsung Stories is a London-based publisher of speculative fiction, dedicated to pioneering cross-genre fiction that sits somewhere in between the usually recognisable worlds of genre categorisation.  In their own words:
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.
Review by Stephanie Jane
Stephanie is a travelling blogger usually to be found in her caravan somewhere in Western Europe. She loves long country walks, theatre trips, second-hand shops, coffee and cake, and, of course, reading. She makes a point to read diverse authors from around the world as this allows her to experience countries and cultures that she may not get to visit in person. Literary fiction is her favourite genre, but she is happy to try niche reads across the board and enjoys supporting small publishing houses and indie authors. 

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