West by Carys Davies

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.

27 thoughts on “West by Carys Davies

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m pretty sure you’ll like it, Susan. A rare newly-published read for me, but a very satisfying one. It has that spare, finely-chiselled prose style that you seem to appreciate too.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    I also do not read a lot of new literature though I would like to find time to read more of it. This sounds very good. It also sounds as if it incorporates some unusual plot elements. I have a list of newer books that I would like to read. I will put this on the list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I would certainly read more new fiction if it were all as well-crafted and satisfying as this. My difficulty seems to be finding the ‘right’ novels to suit my somewhat traditional tastes. I think that’s why this book hit the spot for me as there’s definitely something timeless or classic about the narrative, especially given the period and setting.

      Reply
  2. Max Cairnduff

    I’m delighted you liked it, and that my comments helped push you to giving it a go. It really is very good isn’t it?

    It reminded me slightly of Paulette Jiles’ The News of the World, perhaps because both are slim novels which somehow contain widescreen Westerns within their pages. No small trick.

    This keeps unfolding for me. There’s a lot packed in there thematically. I hadn’t quite reflected for example on the fact that while there are obvious dangers to his journey, Davies brings out that staying home may not be so safe either… Wherever you are there’s no safety to be had in this world.

    Of course, had he stayed those other dangers would never have arisen. What’s right? We’re told to follow our dreams, but what about those we leave behind as we do so? All that and that’s just a sliver because there’s all that material about history and memory, loss and displacement.

    Anyway, lovely review Jacqui and I’m glad you liked the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! Great observation about the dangers of staying at home. I think Davies does a great job in drawing that comparison between the perils of Cy’s journey’s and the vulnerability of Bess to dangers closer to home. That’s very nicely done. As you say, there’s a lot bubbling away under the surface of Old Woman’s backstory, too. All those themes of loss, treachery and displacement – and the author’s lightness of touch leaves plenty of space for readers to ponder and explore these issues for themselves.

      I’ll have to look up the Jiles you’ve mentioned as it’s not a book (or a writer) I’m familiar with. Is it one you’ve reviewed in the past? If so, I’ll take a look at your piece. Your widescreen Western comment is very on point too, as the work I kept thinking of while reading the novel was John Maclean’s film, Slow West, which I’m pretty sure you’ve also seen. It has a similar combination of intimacy/personal detail and broad/ambitious scope.

      Anyways, thanks so much for the recommendation – your praise for it definitely prompted me to give it a go!

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I did review it at mine (here: https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/news-of-the-world-by-paulette-jiles/) and it made my end of year list too. It’s a great little book. I think you’d like it.

        Slow West, which interestingly isn’t a particularly slow film, is great. Lovely visual style too.

        The comparison of dangers home and away leapt out at me when I read your review. It’s why it’s interesting to discuss books in a way isn’t it? We see more when we talk about them. Unexpected angles.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, a very interesting discussion, particularly given the recent exchange over on Twitter. You know, I don’t think the characterisation is the main point here (which is probably why I’m not particularly worried about the sketchiness of the character portraits). It feels more about the history and dangers of the West to me – the sense of displacement and things dying out; the tension between striking out to explore the great unknown and staying put in your own familiar world; the space in the narrative for the reader to wander around in the gaps. That’s what I like about it. Also the idea that it feels quite cinematic in style, the nods to pieces like Slow West. (I agree, the visual style of that film is beautiful, probably down to a combination of Maclean’s direction and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography.) That said, I can understand why Naomi had significant concerns about Cy’s actions in the book, particularly given his abandonment of Bess.

          Now I’m wondering if I should pick it for my book group as it may well divide opinion (we have 3 male and 4 female members, so an interesting mix). I know one of my friends definitely wants to read it as we’d been talking about it a day or two before I saw your tweet. She’s from Wales originally, so Welsh-born writers and actors are generally of interest to her. Anyway, great discussion – I’ll be very interested to see what you say about it in your future write-ups!

          And thank you for the link to the Jiles, I’ll definitely take a closer look at that. From the date, it looks as if it may have gone live while I was off the grid early last year, hence my lack of recognition. Thanks again for flagging it up!

          Reply
  3. clodge2013

    You are tempting me out of my recent decision to read mostly older fiction. This does sound interesting, and your review is persuasive. Thank you (I think).
    Caroline

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! I think it feels sufficiently traditional/classic in style to appeal to your tastes. Well worth considering if you fancy a brief sojourn in newly-published territory.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I’m trying to find time to read more new things (outside of book group reads which are often new) but my older books always seem to call to me loudest. This novel does seem to share a lot of similarities with some classic American literature, it sounds excellent. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s often older fiction that calls to me more strongly these days, but I’m glad I made an exception for this. I think you’d like the spare prose style and strong sense of place. Plus, the story itself has a traditional feel, not million miles away from some of Willa Cather’s pioneer novels.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I think there’s a similar feel for the territory, although it’s probably fair to say that this is sparer and more compact than Cather’s novels.

          Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Such an interesting review and also book, Jacqui. Like many other of your commenters, I really don’t often go for new books – probably I go more for new translated works if I’m going for any. I think my tastes are definitely for older styles of writing and *good* writing – which to be honest seems to be missing from many modern works. I confess the western setting might not be one for me, but you make a very compelling case for reading this book – I will certainly keep it on my radar! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. A little like you, I tend to favour solid, traditional writing and characterisation over many of the stylistic flourishes of modern novels these days, hence my shift towards reading more books form the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s in recent years. Translated fiction is an interesting category, and there are some terrific new voices breaking through in that field; but even so, I’m reading far few books in that sphere than I was say five or six years ago. (Olga Tokarczuk does sounds very intriguing, and I may well give her Plow one a whirl at some point!)

      As for West, I’m not sure I would steer you towards it given your feelings about Western narratives (which I can fully appreciate). It’s an excellent novella, but maybe not the right one for you!

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    This sounds perfect for my book club, where we only read short books as people are much more likely to finish them even when they don’t like them (Gerald Murnane being a recent divisive example!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it would be a great choice for your book group – not only for its brevity, but also for its potential to divide readers’ opinions! If you take a look at my Twitter feed from yesterday, you’ll find some very different views on the strengths and concerns about this novel from a range of different readers – including Naomi Frisby whose opinions I respect very much. It seems to be much more of a polariser than I had anticipated before I read it…so, plenty of potential for some very interesting discussions!

      Reply
  7. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    I’ve recently read this too – and it is a wonderful novella. I adored it – and your review. There’s something compelling about what I tend to call ‘pioneer fiction’ – this book reminded me of Eowyn Ivey’s second novel To the Bright Edge of the World, which has a husband explorer and wife left at home similarly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you, Annabel! I’m really glad to hear that you enjoyed it too. This kind of pioneer fiction definitely appeals to me as a genre. There’s something far-reaching about it, a sense of breadth alongside the more detailed focus on the individuals involved. I’m not familiar with the Ivey but will look it up. (Her first book was very successful, if I recall correctly? The Snow Child?) Many thanks for the tip. :)

      Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    Wow! High praise indeed. This wouldn’t have appealed to me at all, I would have thought ‘Western, meh’ but you’ve totally convinced me Jacqui. And it’s a novella, hooray!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! Funnily enough, I thought of you and your focus on novellas as I was posting this. It’s really very good, but the Western setting and themes are so fundamental to the narrative that you probably need to be open to the genre to enjoy it. On the upside, it’s very short, so you wouldn’t need to invest a lot of time in reading it – 3 or 4 hours max, I’d say.

      Reply
  9. Caroline

    I was quite surprised when i saw you picked a new publication. I read quite a few but don’t review most because so many fall short. This sounds very powerful. Definitely something I would like as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s definitely a relatively rare newly-published read for me, but something about the premise spoke to me when I first came across it in the press. It’s broadly in line with the kind of Western movies I tend to enjoy, films like Slow West, True Grit and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I do think you’d like it, particularity if the quotes appeal.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. lonesomereadereric

    Even though it seems like this novella is more contentious than either of us would have guessed, I hugely enjoyed it and I love how you draw out what’s so innovative about it while appreciating its classic kind of storytelling – as well as it’s wonderful invocation of a landscape and time period.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed it! Will you write about it, do you think? I’d love to hear more about your responses to the characters.

      There is something enduring about the narrative, a classic or timeless feel in spite of the period setting…

      Reply

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