Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This is a beautifully written tale that quickly draws you into the lives and times of the Somerset village of Westerbridge in the years immediately following the end of the Great War in 1918. This war had been so destructively traumatic that everyone at the time was told that it was the war to end all wars. Only, as we now know, it wasn’t and our hero Miss Shirley Fearn, a seventeen-year-old farmer’s daughter still attending the village school, was aware of the idea but indifferent as she had plans of her own.
She has a crush on the school teacher, a Mr Tiller who had been seriously wounded in that war by an act of disembowelment but saved from a certain but slow death by the intervention of an illuminated rock that lodged in his lower abdomen. Obviously Mr Tiller is unable to entertain Shirley’s infatuation as he lacks the capability. Instead, he is on a mission sent by men in the far-flung future anxious to eliminate certain genetic lines which had produced disruptive and turbulent people who they blamed for causing other, more destructive conflicts. His specific task in Westerbridge is to prevent Phyllis Clemens, the baker’s daughter, from marrying Daniel Redmore, the blacksmith’s second son. So he sets up Shirley as the alternative for Daniel’s passion. This works after a fashion but Shirley has sufficient brains to want to understand why.
There are always great plans being made by mice and men and Aliya Whiteley has tumbled to the reality that these plans do not usually include women or even people of colour. It is all about dead white men, even dead white men from a far flung future on the second Earth who haven’t even been born yet. Stuff ‘em all!
I was particularly nervous as to how Whiteley would describe English rural life circa 1920. All but one of my grandparents had talked to me of those times as like all decent Cockneys in those days they had relatives living in country villages in Surrey and Hertfordshire, among others. The traditional skeins of class, clan and economy had begun to crumble long before the Great War under the forced pressures of growing industrialisation and the earlier forms of globalisation. All that the Great War did was ensure they crumbled faster and further, not necessarily for the best.
One gets a distinct feeling that Whiteley has drawn some of her inspiration in a loving and respectful way from Thomas Hardy. This is to be applauded. She lays out very clearly the claustrophobic social atmosphere of a small inward looking community where every life and relationship is conducted and sadly judged in public. The gossip, the idle chatter and the speculations of people with time to dawdle is well illustrated. If Whiteley had really wanted to she could have written that story and forgot about rocks of knowledge hurled into space and time by daft old men on a mission. The subsequent book would not have been fantasy, it wouldn’t necessarily have delivered what she needed to say, but it would still have been a very good tale written in a clear and excellent hand.