Almost exactly a year ago I was delighted to head off to Mussoorie in a smashing guest post (here) from Merryn Glover when A House Called Askival was published. A lot has been happening since then, including my on visit to India, so I invited Merryn back to stay in with me and tell us a bit more!
Staying in with Merryn Glover
Welcome back to Linda’s Book Bag Merryn. Thank you for agreeing to stay in with me.
Thank you for having me!
Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?
This is A House Called Askival, my first novel and the one that arose out of a very deep place in me. It is set where I went to boarding school in India: Mussoorie, a hill-station in the far north, and although the characters are invented and their story is not mine, the novel still explores some very potent experiences from my upbringing. Mussoorie is an extra-ordinary place, with a town that looks ‘like the contents of an upended rubbish bin’ but spread across a range of the Himalayan foothills where the beauty stops you in your tracks. ‘The mountain fell away into the green swathe of the Dun valley where the twin sacred rivers coursed like ribbons of light.’
For more on why Mussoorie is ‘story gold’, I encourage readers to dip into this post I wrote for you last year. But far more than the setting, A House Called Askival is significant because it delves into some of the themes and questions that have been important throughout my life as the daughter of Australian missionaries in South Asia: crossing-cultures and finding home; the gifts and wounds of religious faith; reconciliation, forgiveness and the way of peace. I feel these questions are at the heart of many of the challenges facing our globalised world, a view expressed by Dr Carol Leon of The University of Malaysia when she reviewed Askival for Wasafiri magazine. ‘In the light of what is happening on the world stage today, A House Called Askival is a book which demands our engagement.’
(You make A House Called Askival sound utterly fascinating Merryn. I must try to get to is soon.)
What can we expect from an evening in with A House Called Askival?
Judging from the hundreds of responses I’ve had from the novel, it looks like you can expect a story that will take you to India, set up house in your being and fill you with characters who may never leave. Perhaps there should be a Content Warning on the front about pesky tenants!
This is from Kerrie Warren, a gifted Australian artist:
‘Merryn Glover took me on an unexpected journey to A House Called Askival, all the way to India where my mind and emotions took up residence, and still linger. I’ve not been so affected by a novel for years and now miss being trapped within its pages.’
I always love that kind of response, because for me, a good book is one where you miss the characters at the end. I’ve also been delighted at how many readers have found the portrayal of India so powerful, especially when they are Indian. Here’s a review from Aditi Saha of Bookstop Corner
‘There are authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitava Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Neel Mukherjee, Kiran Desai, etc who have brought alive this country with rich descriptions through their stories… I would gladly put Merryn Glover’s name on the same list.’
As you can imagine, I felt hugely honoured by that praise!
(I bet! And having been to India earlier this year I now want to read A House Called Askival even more!)
The novel has a strong historical thread, going back to the 1930s and the Indian Independence movement (including a cameo appearance from Mahatma Gandhi, as described to me by a man who attended one of his meetings) but there is also a contemporary time-frame in which the estranged father and daughter must face the truth of history – their own and the nation’s – in order to forgive.
(Oo. I visited Ghandi’s house in Mumbai which is now a museum.)
It explores religious conflict on every level: the political and national, within communities and families, and within ourselves; and asks the simple, difficult question: How do we make peace? And it’s in the examining of those questions through the relationships that many readers have found real resonance, as in this response:
‘What will grab every reader: the deft portrayal of character, family dynamics, inter-cultural relationships … you will care deeply about the people of Askival.’
It’s only when we grasp that at the heart of every conflict and every story there are people – for whom we must care deeply – that we can begin to answer the difficult questions.
(You’re absolutely right Merryn. I think it is the place of literature to help us confront and answer those questions. A House Called Askival sounds a really important read as well an an entertaining one.)
What else have you brought along and why?
I have brought cake. Because I’m aware that my book may sound terribly serious and, actually – though it has made several grown men cry – it is also quite funny. And there’s food. Lots of it, because threaded throughout the novel is the story of a unique cookbook. It’s based on a real one that drew on the wide culinary experience of the international community of the Mussoorie hill-station. Begun in the 1930s as a collection of typed recipes from missionary women raising funds for a community library, it kept selling out and was expanded and developed over the years, becoming increasingly international in flavour. (Sorry about the pun!) There’s more about the cookbook on the My Reading Corner blog here but this is the chocolate Wacky Crazy Cake from it. It’s a recipe I made as a teenager, it features in the novel and I still use it – making this one for my son’s seventeenth birthday. He’s happy for me to share!
(Now, if you’re going to bring chocolate cake Merryn, you can come back at ANY time!)
Music is another important element in the story, as the main character, Ruth, is in a high school musical in Delhi that goes terribly, tragically wrong. Another key character, Iqbal, is a singer of ghazals, a form of Urdu poetry and happens to be, like his father Iqbal, an exceptional cook. If Askival was made into a film, I’d love the soundtrack to be written by my high school friend Christopher Dicran Hale, whose music captures the India and Nepal we both grew up in.
(I love this music. It transports me right to India.)
Finally, I could also have brought an old rifle and a hundred beetles, but that could make folks a bit nervous, so I’ve left them safely tucked inside the pages of the novel where they wreak their own havoc.
(Phew! I’m glad to hear that!)
So, you can rest easy, listen to exquisite Indian music, eat chocolate cake and meet the people that inhabit A House Called Askival. Be warned, though: they may never leave you!
After everything you’ve told me Merryn, I won’t mind if they stay as long as they like. Thanks so much for staying in to tell me about this fascinating book. I am very much looking forward to reading it.
A House Called Askival
James Connor is a man who, burdened with guilt following a tragic event in his youth, has dedicated his life to serving India. Ruth Connor is his estranged daughter who, as a teenager, always knew she came second to her parents’ missionary vocation and rebelled, with equally tragic consequences.
After 24 years away, Ruth finally returns to Askival, the family home in Mussoorie, a remote hill station in the Northern State of Uttarakhand, to tend to her dying father. There she must face the past and confront her own burden of guilt if she is to cross the chasm that has grown between them.
In this extraordinary and assured debut, Merryn Glover draws on her own upbringing as a child of missionary parents in Uttarakhand to create this sensitive, complex, moving and epic journey through the sights, sounds and often violent history of India from Partition to the present day.
A House Called Askival is available for purchase here.
About Merryn Glover
Merryn Glover was born to a missionary family in a former palace in Kathmandu and brought up in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Australian by passport, she did a teaching degree in Melbourne and has worked in education and the arts in Australia, India, Nepal and Scotland, now her home for twenty-five years. Her writing has won awards and been published in anthologies, magazines and newspapers. Also a playwright, her fiction and drama have been broadcast on Radio Scotland and Radio 4. A House Called Askival, published in 2014 by Freight Books, is her first novel, and her second, set where she lives in the Highlands of Scotland, is with agent Cathryn Summerhayes of Curtis Brown.
Two days a week she works in the library at Kingussie High School where she loves being surrounded by books and young people, and works hard to get them together. Travelling more with her imagination than a backpack these days, much of her writing explores themes of culture, identity, belief and belonging.