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West by Carys Davies: Poignant Tale of Exploration

Carys Davies is in the elite group of short story writers whose collections I’ve enjoyed. Her second anthology The Redemption of Galen Pike was a wonderful selection of 17 tales that took us to the remotest regions of Siberia and Australia. But as with most short stories, I was left wanting more.

With West, Davies proved that she is just as skilled with the long fiction form. It’s her debut novel, a slim book of just 149 pages. Yet she packs more emotion and atmosphere into that space than some novelists manage in novels twice the length.

Not a word is wasted in this tale of a widowed settler who sets off on an expedition from his Pennsylvania mule farm in search of animals whose gigantic bones had been discovered in a swamp.

He bids farewell to his 10-year-old daughter, Bess, promising to return in a year (or perhaps two). Watching him ride away from the farm, his sister Julie is in no doubt however, that it’s the last time the pair of them will clap eyes on this foolish man.

Riding Into The Wilderness

She has good reason to be sceptical. Cy Bellman has no scientific knowledge and no experience of expeditions. His plan is to follow in the footsteps of two earlier expeditionaries, heading towards the Rocky Mountains but at times diverting into unmapped regions. Should he encounter “savages” en route, he will enlist their aid, bartering trinkets that once belonged to his wife.

He can’t explain why he is so intent on this journey of three thousand miles. Just that the minute he saw a newspaper report of the enormous creatures, he could think of nothing else but the fact they might still be wandering about in “the unexplored territories of the west”.

There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was.

Humour And Sorrow

There’s a delicate balance going on in this novel between humour and sorrow. Cy Bellman has an inflated sense of his mission and his role. He puts a lot of faith in the ability of his newly-purchased stove hat to convince “the natives” of his powerful status. He dreams that his epic journey will lead him discover “the dizzying weight of all the mystery of the earth and everything in it and beyond it”. Everyone else thinks his quest but a mad escapade, including his sister.

This solid no-nonsense kind of woman is a great counterpoint to his enlarged perspective. She sees the adventure as merely the product of a mid-life crisis. Cy’s problem, she reflects, is the same “childish dissatisfaction with everything” that compels other men approaching their forties to buy a new horse or a fancy hat.

The slight moments of humour in West were light relief from the novel’s overall tone of sadness. It’s not simply that Cy, having endured physical hardship, fails to achieve his ambition. Or that at times he wishes he had never left home. There is pathos too in his letters to Bess that never reach their destination and in the relationship Cy forms with his young servant, a Shawnee boy with the strange name of Old Woman from a Distance.

Clash of Culture

This pair start off very wary of each other. Bellman harbours a degree of prejudice towards the natives while Old Woman recalls a prophecy from the elders of his tribe that commerce with the white settlers will spell the beginning of the end of their world. There’s a suggestion too that the boy’s sister was raped and killed by a white men with the same red hair as Cy Bellman.

They begin as representatives of their social group separated by incomprehension. But over months of contending with harsh terrains and extremities of weather, during which they almost die and Cy feels an overwhelming homesickness, a bond develops.

Not one that can be vocalised since neither can speak the other’s language, but evident in the young Indian’s few acts of kindness and in the way Cy begins to see the boy in a different light. He is no longer only a servant but another human being whom Cy wants to understand. “What it is like to be you” he wonders as he watches the boy move about their makeshift camp at night.

Economy of Prose

The extreme hardships this pair endure are fleetingly described in West but the economy of the prose serves only to enhance the effect. Seasons pass in just a few sentences as Bellman makes his way west, through wilderness, along fast moving rivers and towering canyons in deep snow and oppressive heat.

I enjoyed the prose throughout West; the way it was understated yet evocative, repeatedly taking us from a close up of one figure to the huge expanse of space around him.

There were times, out here in the west,  when he lay down at night and, wrapped in his coat, he’d look up at the bright, broken face of the moon and wondered what might be up there too – what he’d find if he could just devise a way of getting there to have a look.

West captures the wildness of the American landscape and its endless possibilities in equal measure. We never lose sight of the foolhardy nature of Cy’s expedition but the novel seems to be making a bigger point about the impulse some humans possess to seek something larger than their own lives.

This is a novel that brings a historical perspective to a fable of one man in search of meaning. It’s a seductive and poignant tale, told with such panache and fluency that you’ll get to the end and then want to begin again.

I savoured every page.

West by Carys Davies: End Notes

About the author: Carys Davies was born and raised in Wales. She worked in the United States for twelve years but has now returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh.

She has written two collections of short stories: Some New Ambush and The Redemption of Galen Pike, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.

Carys Davies’ second novel, The Mission House, was published in the UK by Grant and by Text Publishing in Australia and New Zealand 2020 . It will come out in Europe, USA and Canada in 2021.

About the Book: West, her debut novel was published by Granta in 2018. It won the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Award.

Why I read West: It was one of the books in my #20booksofsummer project for 2020

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