[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives (2016)
Set in rural England after World War I, Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of the Missives tells of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who is faced with a choice between doing what the local community expects of her and finding her own way in the world. This already difficult question is further complicated by the fact that the young woman’s first love is revealed to be a cybernetic prophet with dire warnings about the future.
First off, I very much enjoyed the book and I’m glad that I included it on my short-list. As a character study, the book works very well and I found Whiteley’s use of character voice particularly brilliant as the protagonist clearly sees herself as being very clever and speaks in quite an affected manner but the limitations on her thinking are both obvious and reflected in her tendency to lapse into cliche. Browsing the net I came across an interesting piece on the book by Jack Messenger who says:
To approximate the cadences and vocabularies of social classes in the 1930s how hard it can be to sustain: formalities of speech and polite conventions can so easily sound stilted and awkward to modern ears. There is in my opinion a pervasive stiltedness to the writing in The Arrival of Missives. In particular, Shirley’s somewhat pompous, awkward speech puzzles me: is it adolescent precociousness, a marker of her intellectual superiority or a semi-biblical language meant to signify her own incipient leanings to messianism (it is she, after all, who utters the final sentence of the novel)? This use of language is as much intriguing as it is problematic. I have no idea if ‘window of opportunity’ and ‘ongoing’ had been coined or were in general usage at the time, but their ubiquity in recent years means they had a jarring effect – on me, at least. Similarly, Shirley sometimes thinks in clichés as she ‘climbs into bed’ and ‘quakes with fear’. She also has things to say that are a little too on the nose: ‘I wonder now if there is not an innate bitterness at the heart of education, which always comes with hidden meanings and a high cost.’
What Messenger views as a series of technical lapses, I choose to see as a deliberate evocation of a still-developing mind that is filled with intellectual ambition but ultimately constrained by the British class system and the privileged upbringing it demands.
Unfortunately, while the writing is clever, the use of language is strong, and the characterisation is spot-on, I must admit to having found the ending somewhat rushed and underwhelming:
Given the careful writing and engaging characterisation on display in the opening acts, the novel’s conclusion feels like something of a mess. Desperate to avoid easy answers and reductive binaries, Whiteley ties her protagonist up in so many psychological and ethical knots that she struggles to get them untied in a manner that is either dramatically or thematically satisfying. The story does hold together on a strictly psychological level but while gesturing to the paradoxes and ambiguities of adult life may get Whiteley off the hook, it does feel like something of a cop-out given the care and attention that went into those early sections.
I should also probably address the book’s inclusion on my shortlist in the first place as some people consider The Arrival of the Missives‘ presence on the submissions list to be a little bit cheeky given that its wordcount places it firmly in the novella category. In fact, the members of the BSFA even nominated the book for this year’s BSFA Award albeit in the short fiction category.
The problem here is that while Unsung Stories have submitted this book and had it received for consideration by the Clarke Award, there are a number of people who published novellas in 2016 but didn’t submit their works for consideration because the Clarke has always traditionally focused on novels. Obviously, this is a bit unfair and I suspect that the Clarke Award bods might want to have a think about wordcounts going forward. Particularly given that we are seeing more and more novellas being published as standalone works.
The reason I chose to look at Whiteley’s book is that I think genre culture needs to start pushing back against the idea that the basic unit of genre story-telling is the series with a four-digit page count. There’s nothing wrong with long novels but certain stories work better at certain lengths and if genre imprints are going to insist on churning out 1000-page bloaters they can sell for £25 a time in paperback then certain types of stories are going to wind up being frozen out of the marketplace purely on formal grounds. Genre novels used to be lean, mean, 200-page idea machines and that format worked better for the kinds of stories that I want to read. That is why I decided to look at a work so short that it isn’t technically a novella.
This being said, The Arrival of the Missives does feel a lot more like a work of short fiction than a novel; The narrative is linear and continuous with no sub-plots, flashbacks, or stories-within-stories. Sure… there are a couple of letters and there are some visions of the future but these feel more like images than scenes. Not being an academic, I realise that I’m on thin ice trying to distinguish between novels and short-stories on purely technical grounds but I’ve read novellas and I’ve read short novels and I’d say that The Arrival of the Missives feels more like a work of short fiction because it lacks the kind of density that I’d expect from a short novel.