It was Tony’s description of it as “life-affirming” and “reticent and quiet and almost gentle” that took me to this book. All those things were true, but it was set in India, and in my experience of books set in India involve some pain. The story centers on Hilary Byrd, an Englishman who has been fired from his job in a library and always needed his sister to help him make his way through life. He decided to travel far away from England to recover. His weeks in India turned out to be quite successful, though ultimately he couldn’t escape severe disappointment and worse.
He made his way to a hill station to escape the unbearable heat of the plain and found lodging with an elderly Indian clergyman, cared for by a young woman named Priscilla. She had several infirmities; she had no thumbs and had a serious impairment of one of her legs. Despite her trials, she was thoughtful, eager, and kindly. Hilary made a connection with an auto rickshaw driver Jamshed who took him all around the town, shopping, visiting sites, and most of all, was a good listener as Hilary described his troubles at the library and his life generally.
But I want to get to the most life-affirming part of the story. While Priscilla was still at the orphanage where she grew up, she met a young man who saw her shoplift a CD in a market; they bonded because they both loved country music. She continued to meet Ravi after she began working for the clergyman and taught him to pronounce “Arkansas,” important if you want to become a country singer. Ravi was the nephew of Jamshed and was able to wheedle money Jamshed made driving Hilary so he could buy everything he needed to become a country singer, which included a horse. Priscilla and Ravi practiced singing together in preparation for their new life. It is the image of Priscilla and Ravi singing country songs, donned in their country-music attire, accompanied by a horse that comes to me when I think of this book.
One of the songs they learned was “Achy Breaky Heart” recorded by Billy Ray Cyrus. I have such a lovely memory of hearing that on the radio when driving somewhere with Jennifer and we were so pleased we could sing along within about 15 seconds.
The time Hilary was in India was happy, especially after he became Priscilla’s teacher; first to improve her English, then to sew and cook. The Padre was eager for Priscilla to have skills that would make it possible for him to find a suitable husband for her. At first Hilary feared the Padre was considering him for the role, then began to imagine that Priscilla was interested in his 50-year-old self with great happiness. It was a sad day when he realized the truth. Still, the time he had teaching her to cut out a pattern, sew zippers, and make a Victoria sponge, was a lovely time for them both.
Carys Davies, The Mission House, Scribner, 2021, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook).