This reading group guide for The Mission House includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Fleeing his demons and the dark undercurrents of contemporary life in the UK, Hilary Byrd takes refuge in a former British hill station in South India. Charmed by the foreignness of his new surroundings and by the familiarity of everything the British have left behind, he finds solace in life’s simple pleasures, traveling 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 postcolonial ideas in a world fractured between faith and nonbelief, young and old, imperial past and nationalistic present. Tenderly subversive and meticulously crafted, it is a deeply human story of the wonders and terrors of connection in a modern world.Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. The Mission House
opens with the arrival of middle-aged bachelor Hilary Byrd to the former British hill station Ooty. In what ways is Byrd a sympathetic character? In what ways is he not? Have you ever felt or acted like him during travels of your own?
2. When Byrd first suspects that the Padre has him in mind as a suitor for Priscilla, he is aghast. Later, this feeling of horror is replaced by fear that he has been judged unworthy. What did you make of Byrd’s change of heart? Are his feelings for Priscilla a sign of personal growth, or something else?
3. In pondering the reasons why he takes so well to life in Ooty, Byrd wonders aloud to Jamshed, the auto rickshaw driver, “Perhaps . . . it was the combination of the strange and familiar that suited him. Perhaps there was a balance that was just right for his personality. Perhaps it provided him with a sort of perfect equilibrium” (page 61). What do you think Byrd means by “perfect equilibrium?”
4. When Jamshed revisits diary entries from his early days as an auto rickshaw driver he recalls that he “had no idea how to drive but he was sure he would master it, and he’d been certain then that it would be the beginning of something” (page 47). What do you imagine that “something” was for Jamshed? How does it compare to Ravi and Priscilla’s dream for their own lives?
5. Aside from mentions of internet cafes and emails, there are only a few references to the fact that The Mission House
is set in the very recent past. What effect did the novel’s sense of timelessness have for you?
6. One of the two embroidered placards hanging on the wall of the mission house reads Lean Not on Thine Own Understanding
. What techniques has Carys Davies used in the writing of this novel to encourage her readers to heed this warning, even if Byrd does not?
7. The other embroidered placard on the wall of the mission house reads I will be your Shield, your High Tower, the Horn of your Salvation.
Do you think Byrd finds salvation in the end? What, if anything, can we learn from him?
8. The officer investigating Byrd’s disappearance attributes the circumstances to “so much passion simmering under the surface of things” (page 219). What do you think he means by this?
9. Discuss the roles of religion and faith in The Mission House
. Did anything surprise you about the multifaith community Carys Davies depicts?
10. What postcolonial ideas does The Mission House
explore? Would you consider the novel to be a work of postcolonial fiction? Why or why not?Enhance Your Book Club
1. On the acknowledgments page of the book, Carys Davies tells us that her writing was inspired by events she witnessed leading up to the rise to power of Narendra Modi’s BJP in India. Read more about the BJP and Hindu nationalism in newspapers and other news sources. How does this context change your understanding of the novel?
2. Several reviews of The Mission House
compare the novel to E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India
, published in 1924. If you’re up for the challenge, read both novels and discuss their parallels and differences.