Book group choices aside, I don’t tend to read very many newly published books these days, mostly because my tastes have been gravitating towards older literature over the last few years. Nevertheless, every now and again, something new and intriguing catches my eye, often by way of a review or recommendation from a trusted source.
This brings me to West, a haunting novel by the Welsh-born writer Carys Davies, published to great acclaim in 2018. I’d already been thinking about picking up a copy when Max’s praise for it on Twitter pushed me over the edge. This taut, finely-honed novel – Davies’ first – packs quite a punch. As you’ll see from my comments below, it shares something with the classic, almost timeless narratives I tend to enjoy.
Set in the American landscape in the early 19th century, the novel revolves around Cy Bellman, a British settler and widower who lives with his ten-year-old daughter, Bess, on their mule ranch in Pennsylvania. Curious and adventurous by nature, Cy is intrigued by newspaper reports of the discovery of huge animal bones in the midst of the Kentucky swamps – so much so that he prepares to embark upon an epic journey through challenging territory in the hopeful belief that these mammoths might still be alive in the West.
While Cy’s forthright sister, Julie, thinks him crazy for abandoning his daughter, Cy is determined to go. He must discover the truth for himself – to see these beasts with his own eyes, complete in their natural habitat. It seems likely he will be away for a year or two, possibly longer – it’s hard to predict. Only Bess is convinced that her father will eventually return home, demonstrating a maturity behind her years in understanding his desire to see something of the world, his sense of curiosity about the great unknown.
Once Cy heads west, the narrative moves back and forth between his travels and the situation back at the ranch. Aunt Julie is now installed at the farm, firstly to take care of young Bess and secondly to oversee the breeding of mules and hinnies which provides the family with their income. In the latter activity, Bess is assisted by Elmer Jackson, a shady neighbouring labourer who harbours designs on Bellman’s estate, not least the women who live there. Like Julie, Jackson is also firmly of the belief that Cy will never be seen alive in Pennsylvania again, his endeavours written off as a foolhardy venture.
Bess, on the other hand, spends her spare time in the local library, keen to learn more of her father’s potential route through the territories. Intuitively, she senses the need to be wary of the librarian, a lecherous man with a penchant for young girls…
Meanwhile, back on the journey, Cy is joined by a Native American, a young Shawnee boy named ‘Old Woman from a Distance’ who is familiar with the local terrain. Even though the two travellers have very little in the way of a common language – they communicate mostly through displays of emotion and physical gestures – the boy helps Cy to navigate the unfamiliar territory, hunting and fishing for food in exchange for various trinkets of interest.
The vast prairie is tough and relentless – as is the climate, particularly in winter, a harsh and unforgiving season in the exposed terrain. Sightings of other individuals are few and far between; but when they come, they never cease to surprise, forming a striking image against the backdrop of the land.
The intermittent appearance of natives now, though he’d come by this time to expect it, amazed him: the presence of people in the vast wilderness around them. Even though he was used to the rhythm of their journey – that he and the boy could travel for a month and see no one, and then without warning encounter a large camp, or a group of savages walking or fishing. Noisy children and men whose bodies gleamed with grease and coal, women loaded like mules with bundles of buffalo meat. A whole mass of them together, undifferentiated and strange, and present suddenly amidst the course grass and the trees, the rocks and the river, beneath the enormous sky. All of them wanting to touch his red hair. Half of them enthralled by his compass, the other half trying to examine his knife and the contents of his tin chest. All of them fearful of his guns and eager to traffic a little raw meat for some of his treasures. (p. 100)
There is some beautiful writing here, demonstrating Davies’ deep appreciation of the land and cultural history of the West. These descriptive passages feel grounded in authenticity, a quality that adds a strong sense of credibility to the narrative.
As the prospect of another winter in the barren landscape looms large on the horizon, Cy finds himself wondering if his journey has been in vain, a fruitless folly in search of some great inexplicable myth.
He began to feel that he might have broken his life on this journey, that he should have stayed at home with the small and the familiar instead of being out here with the large and the unknown. (p. 99)
I don’t want to reveal too much more about the story itself, save to say that it is powerful, vivid and beautifully constructed. Along the way we learn a little more of the Shawnee boy’s backstory, how his countrymen were cheated out of their land, their possessions and their ways of doing things – an underhand action brought about by US Government representatives who wanted the Native Americans moved on from their communities, thereby freeing up the Eastern territories for the arrival of new settlers from Europe. In the following passage, the boy recalls the earlier prophecies of an elder member of his community – predictions that largely came to pass in the course of the negotiations.
He prophesised that a time would come when they would know that the whole of the earth had been pulled from beneath the skin of their feet, that they would wake up one morning in the dawn and find that all the forests and all the mountains, all the rivers and the vast sweep of the prairie, had slipped from their grasp like a rope of water, and all they had to show for the bargains they had made was some worthless jewelry, some old clothes, and a few bad guns. Everything they’d bartered – their dogs and their furs, their pounded fish and their root cakes, their good behaviour, their knowledge of the country and the way they’d always done things – they would understand that they had given it all away for a song. (p. 34)
Unsurprisingly, the boy is angry about previous events; but he is also industrious, determined to seek a different, more beneficial future for himself in the fullness of time.
West is a potent, elegantly-constructed book that captures the beauty and brutality of the vast American landscape in equal measure. It is a novel shot through with a strong sense of loss: the loss of communities, possessions and personal dignity – the absence of loved ones is also very keenly felt. Themes of displacement and elimination run through the book, from the movement of the Native Americans to the West, to the dying out of the great mythical creatures that form Cy’s quest.
As the narrative plays out, there is a degree of retribution for some of the injustices and atrocities of the past – reverberations from days gone by ripple through the story, particularly towards the end.
I absolutely loved this spare and compelling novel. Very highly recommended, particularly for fans of fiction with a deep sense of place.
West is published by Granta; personal copy.