One of the best discoveries of my time blogging has to be the fiction of Carys Davies. I first read her short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, when I was judging Fiction Uncovered back in 2015 as a submission and remember pondering if we could give it all of the prize money, it was that good. Every tale defied expectation, without the need for twists in the tale, and each had an epic scope even if it was a pages long. I then read her debut collection Some New Ambush at the start of 2016 and was blown away once more. So I was very, very, very excited when I heard that she had written her first novel, West, though of course instantly got nervous as to whether I would love it or not. I finally turned to it earlier this month and once again fell helplessly in love with Davies’ writing.
“Look you long and hard, Bess, at the departing figure of your father,” said her aunt Julie from the porch in a loud voice like a proclamation.
“Regard him, Bess, this person, this fool, my brother, John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one. From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad. Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes. Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.”
So says Bess’ aunt Julia as Cy Bellman leaves his family home in Pennsylvania in search of the ‘mammoth beasts’ whose remains have been found ‘in the West’. The discovery or even capture of these beasts Cy believes will be the making of his name and, much more importantly to him, improve the life of himself and his daughter who he is heartbroken to leave behind. Many think him mad for going on such a journey that will certainly involve many dangers, in fact many people believe he will not make it back again. Yet go he does, leaving his daughter Bess behind in the safe care of his sister, yet what he hasn’t thought of is that there may be as many dangers to Bess back home as there could be if he had taken her.
It is at this early stage that the novel splits in to the two stories of Bellman and his daughter as time moves forward. We follow Cy as he heads out on a journey that could lead him anywhere, through small towns, where in one he hires the help of a young native Shawnee boy called Old Woman From A Distance to help him journey further with added knowledge of the perils that might lie in store. Back in Pennsylvania, while her aunt reminds her regularly that she is probably now an orphan, Bess has to deal with the arduous danger or a young farmhand and an older librarian both who have their sights set on her and not necessarily for marriage. I found this nod to the fact men must go and seek out danger far and wide whereas danger will seek women out closer to home both a brilliant analogy of both the 1800’s when the book is set and also still as prevalent right now rather poignant.
I won’t give anything more about the book away, I will say though that the sense of dread and the brooding atmosphere for both Bess and Cy as the book goes on pulses through every line to its unforgettable conclusion. Not a word is wasted as Davies takes us over hundreds of miles trekking through vast expanses with Cy or hundreds of days back home working out the way society and the world works for Bess. It is a mini epic in its truest form.
For a week he lay beneath his shelter and didn’t move. Everything was frozen, and when he couldn’t get his fire going he burned the last of the fish because it seemed better to be starving than to be cold.
And then one night he heard the ice booming and cracking in the river, and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.
Later that day he caught a small fish.
Berries began to appear on the trees and bushes.
Winter ended and spring came and he continued west.
What adds to its epic nature all the more is the interweaving of both huge topics of the time and mini stories that might take a mere sentence or two, or a paragraph at the maximum. The early 1800’s were a turbulent time in the US with Native American’s being displaced and plundering of their lands and indeed there people. This is never explicitly discussed or shown, the tension between Cy and Old Woman From A Distance says it all as their power struggle develops with no common language, just common ground which both are trying to gain ownership of over the other. Back in Pennsylvania as we meet some of Bess’ fellow townsfolk we discover stories of love that almost was and innocent seeming folk with much darker hearts.
West once again showed me why I love Carys Davies writing so much. Within her vast landscapes Davies also creates mini worlds which is the power of all her prose and storytelling. In fact let’s call it story weaving, because it does feel like it has been so intricately woven together. Yet there is no mucking about with never ending floral prose, it is beautifully crafted short and sweet sentences that condense what would take some authors a chapter potentially. She also has the power to make you darkly chuckle before having your heart broken. It is for all these reasons that I would highly recommend you read West and get lost for a few hours in some of the most wonderful writing, then head straight to Davies’ short stories if you haven’t already.