Carys Davies has followed her highly praised debut, West, with another jewel of a novel. Hilary Byrd is a man dogged by “bad days” who seeks refuge in Ooty, a hill station in south India much prized by the British soldiers who first rode up there in 1819 and decided to build “a little corner of England. A place to rest in, out of the heat, and be comfortable and cool.” The evocation of a 1950s British idyll in India is so persuasive that it comes as a shock to read the word “email” – this, it transpires, is a novel set in the present day.
“The gingerbread eaves of the post office” in Ooty soothe Byrd, who is haunted by the memory of an elderly man calling him a “bald cunt” in the library where he’d worked for 25 years in south-east London. His only company now is Jamshed, the rickshaw driver who transports him around the small town, the Padre and his adoptive daughter, Priscilla, who live next to Byrd. Priscilla was born with no thumbs and a short right leg; when the Padre suggests he must find a good match for her, Byrd’s heart leaps at the idea this could be his destiny.
Byrd spends his days gently, “looking out across the presbytery garden and over the tops of the trees, to the hills and the mist on the opposite side of the town” or visiting the botanical gardens, the library and the lake, but there is a terrible sense of foreboding, not least as nationalism in the region is on the rise.
The novel accelerates in the final chapters as the Padre prepares Priscilla for a wedding and local unrest builds. Some of Davies’s footing comes a little unstuck here, not least because the psychology of the closing moments is not wholly convincing, but what a fascinating novel this remains.
• The Mission House by Carys Davies is published by Granta (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15