The Great War is over and Britain is still reeling from its after-effects. Shirley Fearn, a teenage schoolgirl who lives in a small country village, believes she has a part to play in rebuilding the nation. She wants to be a teacher, giving hope and direction to Britain’s fractured youth. But Shirley’s ambitions are not entirely altruistic. She is infatuated with her own teacher, the mysterious Mr. Tiller, who has walked with a limp since returning from the battlefields of France and who – as local rumour has it – “isn’t a real man… not after that injury.”
Shirley doesn’t understand what that means. Neither does she care. All Shirley wants is to love Mr. Tiller, train to be a teacher and then return to the village to work beside him. What she doesn’t realise is that Mr. Tiller left the battlefield with something greater than his disfigurement – an object is buried deep inside him, an object that has given Mr. Tiller a prophetic insight into the future, and Shirley will soon become an important part of Mr. Tiller’s mission to save the world. With the May Day celebrations fast approaching, Mr. Tiller asks something terrible of Shirley. Is Mr. Tiller mad, or does Shirley really hold the fate of mankind within her grasp?
Aliya Whiteley’s novella is a confluence of social realism, rural coming-of-age story, and speculative science fiction. It only runs to 120 pages but, thanks to the poetic simplicity of Whiteley’s prose, it is more intimate and more thematically textured than many novels four times that length. Told in the first person, Shirley is a precocious narrator who isn’t always easy to like, but Whiteley writes with such disarming honesty that we still have sympathy for everything Shirley feels: her frustration with country life, her fascination with Mr. Tiller, her initial ambivalence towards the blacksmith’s son Daniel, which gradually becomes something more and threatens to derail Mr. Tiller’s prophecy, setting a brutal and unexpected climax into motion. It is an intriguing ‘what if?’ of a tale, one that keeps us transfixed and wondering right up to the final pages and with an ending that won’t easily be forgotten.
THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES / AUTHOR: ALIYA WHITELEY / PUBLISHER: UNSUNG STORIES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW