Considering contemporary fiction’s obsession with the First World War, it is surprising that the far more interesting period of British history, the period directly afterward, is so poorly represented by our literature. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any novels that deal with the time apart from Adam Thorpe’s (very good) novel, 1921. And while I’m sure there are a few more than that, there is no doubting that however many there are, they are dwarfed in number by the thousands of novels filling up the bookshelves in WHSmiths, with their silhouettes of soldiers and barbed wire on their covers and their set pieces of lads-deciding-to-go-to-war-together, mothers-and-wives-being-told-their-boys-will-be-back-by-Christmas, trenches, poetry, incidents-with-a-prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold-in-rural-France-who-later-dies-so-that-plotlines-can-be-tied-up-more-neatly, best-friends-dying-in-his-arms, and handsome-but-repressed-officer-with-shellshock-and-a-terrible-injury-being-nursed-back-to-health-by-a-girl-slightly-above-or-below-his-social-standing.
As Whiteley points out in our interview with her: “After the war everything is up for grabs: emotions, social strictures, interpretations of what the hell just happened.” This, rather than the I-mean-obviously-war-is-bad-but-don’t-you-think-it’s-a-bit-brave-and-romantic-too? garbage of most war novels, is the sort of stuff an interesting writer can get their teeth into, and Whiteley does so very nicely indeed.
Shirley Fearn wants more than society offers, a job, a temporary escape from the village she lives in, and maybe, just maybe, the love of Mr Tiller, the village teacher who carries with him the scars of an impossible accident on the battlefield of war. Of course, this being an Aliya Whitley novel, things are a little bit more strange than they might first appear and, this being an Aliya Whitely novel, it is very hard to talk about that strangeness without getting into spoilers territory, and I don’t want to do that because this is an Aliya Whitely novel, and I wouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of one of those for all the money in the world.
What can I say without spoiling things? I can say that The Arrival of Missives, like the best of historical fiction, captures the time it is set in but also feels universal and as much about now as the past. I can say that Shirley Fearn is a brilliant protagonist. I can say that you are going to love this book. Yes, all of you. Yes, even you.
Whitely is one of our greatest melders of genre and literary fiction and The Arrival of Missives is, for want of a more academic term, another twenty-four carat stonker. Just as in The Beauty, she stacks more insights about gender and class and privilege and the human condition into a hundred and twenty pages than other writers manage in a lifetime. She is one of the few writers who combine a mastery of story and writing with an understanding of the possibilities of brevity. She may be our generation’s Muriel Spark. There, I said it. That good.
Any Cop?: Buy it. Read it. Thank me later.