West by Carys Davies

Review published on May 16, 2018.

This is a tale of life, loss and absence in an earlier, earthier age that reminds us that we are still the same under the skin in more sophisticated times. A novel of extraordinary beauty and concision. A little gem that demonstrates that Davies is a consummate story teller, capable of entrancing and shocking the reader. West is a bravura debut, an accomplished tale of genuine panache. A portrait in miniature that has the scope and wonder of a vast panorama. A beguilingly simple tale that plumbs the depths of the human story; West will remain with you for some time.

John Cyrus ‘Cy’ Bellman is a man lost in grief following the death of his wife. Is he clutching at straws or is he genuinely enthused with new hope when he reacts to a story in the newspaper by setting off on a great expedition? The discovery of huge bones in the swamps of Kentucky that can only come from giant creatures takes hold of his imagination. He is determined to undertake an unquantifiable journey, he doesn’t know how far he will travel. There are no maps to guide him as he explains to his daughter:

“More than a thousand miles, I think so, Bess, yes….
That’s a long way.
Yes it is.
But worth it if you find them.
I think so, Bess. Yes.”

In his heart, Cy knows that these creatures are waiting to be discovered. It’s a lifeline that he grasps, an imperative that drives his adventure.

“John Cyrus Bellman was a tall, broad, red-haired man of thirty-five with big hands and feet and a thick russet beard who made a living breeding mules. He was educated, up to a point.”

Cy is no scholar, this is not a scientific expedition. Is he running away from his memories, from his only daughter, Bess, now ten, who has the look of her mother?

This is Pennsylvania, 1815, and the trek will take him away for a year, maybe two. He promises to write but tragically the letters that arrive with Bess are water damaged, ink bleached from the page, others are entrusted to travellers but not forwarded. Bess is left in the charge of her aunt Julie, a stern woman who believes her brother to be setting out on a fools errand, she does not expect him to return. There are hints about Cy defying the religious values his sister holds, but these are subtly played. While Bess refuses to give up on her father as time goes on, her aunt scorns his efforts at every turn. Bess turns her back on the people who gainsay her father because she and Cy live in hope. In her father’s absence Bess becomes wary of the neighbour, Elmer Jackson, a man always sniffing around her and her aunt. The librarian also has an unhealthy interest in the girl. This is part rites of passage tale for Bess and she has to learn quickly to look after herself. Meanwhile, Cy heads into the unknown, into a wilderness of real danger. He employs a young Shawnee boy by the name of Old Woman From A Distance, the boy is an adept companion and guide. The travellers they meet look on Cy with derision or pity when he tells his story. As they head further West, the seasons come and go, the hardship sets in.

“He was in an agony of indecision: whether to carry on with his quest or give it up as a bad job and turn himself around and begin the long trek home.”

West is a tale that can turn in a flash, it’s an emotional ride that surprised and tears at the heart. Cy’s voyage of discovery presages a terrible age of genocide. The native Americans they come across are already wary of the settlers; the massacres and duplicity that sees them squeezed from their lands (an old man warns of the trickery, the worthless trinkets). Are the native Americans headed for extinction? Like the bones.

West is a tale full of hope and possibilities, of human folly and tragedy. We empathise with and pity the plight of the characters. Davies does a nice line in dark humour and the novel has the feel of a folk tale, all of which bring tragedy to fore. If I was a writer and not a reader this is the kind of slight but fruitful tale I would love to create. A masterly work.

Carys Davies has published two collections of short stories and was lauded in 2014 for The Redemption of Galen Pike, which won a host of awards and prestigious prizes. It would be amazing if West is not similarly praised.

Paul Burke 5/5

West by Carys Davies
Granta Books 9781783784226 hbk Apr 2018

Previous:

Gustave Flaubert: The Ambiguity of the Imagination by Giuseppe Cafiero

Next:

Pigeon by Alys Conran

You may also like