A surprising mash-up, this tale’s first person POV is firmly set just post WWI in rural England–so rural that electricity and the trains haven’t made it there yet. Then, through a secondary character sci-fi tinges the story as a controlled glimpse of the far future–post-apocalyptic and off-Earth far into the future. Whiteley has a way of making things work that shouldn’t as seen in her 2015 novella The Beauty.
Shirley Fearn narrates the happenings [and exchange of missives] during her last year in school. She’s a canny student, yet naive to the broader world. And she’s smitten with her ex-soldier teacher, Mr. Tiller, who at 24 y.o. already has an old soul and rebuffs her every ploy to get close to him. But, he’s very interested in getting Shirley to hook up, quite inappropriately, with her male classmate Daniel Redmore whom she’s never thought much of one way or another.
I wonder why everyone keeps telling me about Daniel. It’s not as if I have done anything to encourage the belief that I have an interest in him, and I do not urge him to be interested in me. Besides, if I did want to see Daniel it would hardly do for a young lady to turn up at a gentleman’s house in the hope of catching a glimpse of him.
Hypocritically, she does just that to Mr. Tiller catching sight of the horrible wound he brought back from war–a massive stone laced with silver embedded in his chest. He confesses that the stone gives him visions of the future and knowledge as to how to avoid an upcoming apocalypse. It’s a message from the future . . .
He relates these visions to Shirley in other letters. Meanwhile, enamored with the life of a teacher, Shirley envisions teaching in her future, too, which would be possible if she attended the teaching school in the next town, Taunton. Letters are exchanged with the school, too.
But this is not the time and place where a young lady can make plans for her own future. Parents and townsmen make the decisions for all of the ladies and wives. Shirley is to marry Daniel so that Shirley’s father has someone to inherit his farm. Daniel’s father already has an heir to his smithy in Daniel’s older brother Dennis. The decisions of well-meaning old men starts to weigh on Shirley. Her father. Mr. Redmore. Mr. Tiller. The pastor. The old men of the board at Taunton. They all know what’s best for young Shirley.
I see now that [placating] is a lesson all women must learn, and my mother is an adept. I had never noticed her performance before. She handles my father with her downcast eyes and serene expression. She skips over obstacles he lays for her with deceptive ease . . . When he asks why she is silent, she says cheerfully of how she was just thinking a funny thing Mrs Barbery said to her in the village . . . Then she looks away and I see the pretense fall, and I know she is hiding all her thoughts and feelings in order to pander to him. He is an enormous tyrant baby to whom she will be forever bound.
The only person supporting Shirley choice to apply to Taunton–is Daniel. He, too, wants nothing more than to break free from their small village. And he’d like to do that with Shirley. But she needs to know the truth of Mr. Tiller’s visions. Shirley communes with the stone and receives the message from the three old men of the deep future as to how her life should play out for their sake . . .
I received my copy of this novel directly from the publisher, Unsung Stories, through bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com. I’ve previously read Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty which made Jaffalogue’s Best Reads of 2015 for best post-apocalyptic novella.
[Check out my other reviews here.]