Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 30, 2023

The Mission House (2020), by Carys Davies

At first glance, the cover design for the Australian edition of Welsh author Carys Davies doesn’t seem to have anything to do with The Mission House.  But it does: those eucalyptus leaves symbolise the ubiquity of things — and people — that are out of place.  Just like the central character in the novel when he notices that these leaves are everywhere in the Indian town where he has sought refuge.  Hilary Byrd feels out of place in the modern world, but postcolonial India isn’t a place for him either.

This is the blurb:

From the prize-winning author of West, a collision between old and new, east and west, in a former British hill station in contemporary South India.

Fleeing the dark undercurrents of contemporary life in Britain, Hilary Byrd takes refuge in Ooty, a hill station in South India. There he finds solace in life’s simple pleasures, travelling by rickshaw around the small town with his driver Jamshed and staying in a mission house beside the local presbytery where the Padre and his adoptive daughter Priscilla have taken Hilary under their wing.

The Padre is concerned for Priscilla’s future, and as Hilary’s friendship with the young woman grows, he begins to wonder whether his purpose lies in this new relationship. But religious tensions are brewing and the mission house may not be the safe haven it seems.

The Mission House boldly and imaginatively explores post-colonial ideas in a world fractured between faith and non-belief, young and old, imperial past and nationalistic present. Tenderly subversive and meticulously crafted, it is a deeply human fable of the wonders and terrors of connection in a modern world.

Hilary Byrd is a quiet, gentle and shy man, a librarian who hasn’t adapted to the way libraries have morphed into places not primarily for reading.  They are now community places where books and reading are only a part of what’s on offer.  There was a child performing an on-again/off-again tantrum in my library yesterday, and I went out of my way to be friendly to the young mum not coping very well with two kids under four because I guessed she was feeling that she was being judged.  But it was easy for me.  I was out of there in five minutes. Some librarians have to put up with this kind of bratty behaviour all day, every day.  And then there’s the awful rudeness, foul language and abuse of people who don’t respect the fact that they are in a shared space, as depicted in The Mission House. The modern world of entitlement is no place for a gentle soul like Hilary Byrd.

Gradually it is revealed that Hilary Byrd descended into deep depression, from which his loving sister Wyn has rescued him more than once, but his impulsive flight to India has put him out of her reach.  There he is rescued from confusion and doubt and running out of money by the Christian Padre who lets him stay in a room vacated by the young missionary who was supposed to replace him.  And then, after a fall in the town, Hilary is rescued again by Jamshed, an auto-rickshaw driver who becomes a patient listener to Hilary’s anxieties while driving him around the town each day.

At page 30, the author signals that Ooty, a hill station in South India, is not going to be the safe haven that Hilary craves.

In due course, the old driver, Jamshed, will be questioned about the tall tourist, Mr Hilary Byrd.

In a leaf-green room with a small high window and a broken electric heater he will sit for hours during the investigation on a moulded plastic chair and tell the brown-uniformed policeman that looking at the tall Englishman that first day at the terminus, he had seen only money.

Money so that the tank of his auto could always be full, so he did not have to beg his customers for a 100 rupee note when they’d barely set off so that he could call at the Bharat Petroleum Station to buy fuel for his empty tank. Money for a pair of shoes which matched. Money for his nephew’s crazy costume.

‘Don’t leave anything out,’ the policeman will say and the old man will nod. Even though there are certain details, now, that do not seem important. (p. 30)

So, though we see Hilary Byrd regain his bearings, we know that things will not end well.  His fears, that he will be trapped into rescuing the Padre’s adopted daughter Priscilla from un-marriageability, change when he becomes fond of her, but he has misread the situation wrongly from start to finish.  The reader is lured into becoming absorbed by this Shakespearean plot, so that the ending comes as a shock.

The Mission House is more than a collision between old and new, east and west, it is a compelling novel that confronts the fantasy of a quiet life with the cruel realities of the modern world.

About the author, from her website:

Carys Davies’s debut novel West was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, longlisted for the European Literature Prize, Runner Up for the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize, and winner of the Wales Book of the Year for Fiction. Her second novel The Mission House was The Sunday Times 2020 Novel Of The Year.

The Mission House was reviewed at The Guardian too. 

Author: Cary Davies
Title: The Mission House
Cover design: Anna Green
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020, first published by Granta 2020
ISBN: 9781922330635, 246 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings $29.99


  1. I get a good sense of the novel from your excellent description of it, but not of your level of enjoyment in reading it. So what did you think of it?


  2. […] The Mission House (2020), by Carys Davies – ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]


  3. An excellent choice for Dewithon. Thank you so much, Lisa! 😊👍


  4. Sounds brilliant, Lisa!


  5. Ooh. I hadn’t realised it was relatively dark—the publicity very much makes it seem like a gentle retreat novel.


    • It’s not like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank goodness. The world can only cope with one.


  6. I have a copy. I just need to fit it into the reading schedule.


  7. I have to say I miss the quietness of libraries of old. They were a sanctuary. But I am also happy to see all the inclusive activities now happening. This book sounds interesting as I like stories around libraries.


    • I like modern libraries when they are well run and I love to see the kids there because that’s how I developed my love of reading. I belong to multiple libraries and all of them have specific programs for children and they have access to computers for people who need them etc. I am in and out of different branches of the Kingston and Bayside libraries, and an occasional visitor to Port Phillip and Dandenong libraries, and I have never seen there what keeps me away from the Glen Eira library where children run unhindered through the stacks and scream and shout and throw tantrums without any attempts at intervention.
      I was also dismayed on my last (pre Covid) visit to the State Library. Now it’s like the university libraries, full of students talking and they don’t talk quietly, not at all.
      The problem that the librarian of this story has, is that there are low-level rules to make the library a comfortable place for everyone, but there are people who resent any polite request to moderate their behaviour and they respond with abuse and foul language and persist with their ‘right’ to do as they please.
      #Musing I think we are all increasingly troubled by the rise of intemperate behaviour and the difficulty of dealing with it without making ourselves vulnerable.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree. I do love seeing kids enjoying books. Often the adults are worse than the kids😳


    • Yup!
      And at the end of the day, it’s the adults not supervising their children who are responsible for them.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: