by Carys Davies
When Cy Bellman, American settler and widowed father of Bess, reads in the newspaper that huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he leaves his small Pennsylvania farm and young daughter to find out if the rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River.
West is the story of Bellman's journey and of Bess, waiting at home for her father to return. Written with compassionate tenderness and magical thinking, it explores the courage of conviction, the transformative power of grief, the desire for knowledge and the pull of home, from an exceptionally talented and original British writer. It is a radiant and timeless epic-in-miniature, an eerie, electric monument to possibility.
I received an eARC of West from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
West is the debut novella from an established short story writer, and it feels like a debut novella from an established short story writer. Carys Davies' writing is stunning, and I love how sparse her writing is; each word she chooses is there to serve a purpose but she chooses each one with such skill that, although her style isn't flowery it is lyrical in its simplicity.
That being said, I finished this story wishing I'd gotten a little more from it. West is set in 19th century Pennsylvania, where widower Cy Bellman reads an article describing the large bones that have been found out west. Though there are no pictures in the article, Cy is so taken with the idea of creatures so big that he simply has to see them, so he leaves his ten year old daughter, Bess, with his sister and sets out on his quest, and while he deals with the dangers of his journey it appears that Bess isn't entirely safe without her father's protection, either.
There's a lot about this novella that I really liked. Cy's obsession with these bones and the descriptions of his fascination with them set West up to feel like a kind of 'fool's journey' story, in fact when Cy eventually finds himself being assisted on his quest by a First Nations boy West started giving me Don Quixote vibes. There's something about these bones, about these creatures no one's seen, that fills Cy with the most feeling he's had since the passing of his wife years before, and I loved how his behaviour could be read also as a man still dealing with grief and loss and perhaps even mental illness. There are mentions of him keeping everyone, including his daughter, at a distance for days at a time following his wife's death, which read to me like a man struggling through clinical depression in a time when no one understood what that was.
Having said that, I loved Bess and the sections of the novella about her a lot more. Cy and Bess were both well realised characters, but there was something about Bess that made her feel more substantial to me as a character. As her story went on she started to grow into a little human while Cy seemed to become less of a person and more of a parable of foolishness. That being said, Davies never mocks Cy or his desperation to see these creatures and know what they are. Other people he meets along the way might think he's crazy but Davies never does, and I appreciated that while his journey does become rather foolish Cy himself can never be completely described as a fool because so much of what he's doing is wrapped up in grief and a longing for something beyond himself.
While I loved Bess, though, there were aspects of her story that frustated me a little. I really liked the juxtaposition of her father facing the wilderness and Bess growing into womanhood in a world where men might try and take advantage of her with no father to keep her safe, but it feels like a story I've seen before and I didn't think Davies was really saying anything new. I don't want every story I read to be a lesson - stories can just be stories and be enjoyed as such - but this story is so short already that I thought it was a shame that so many of Bess's sections were taken up with scenarios I've seen before, particularly in historical fiction. There are two men in particular who have horrid intentions and, to Davies' credit, she never writes gratuitously about their desires, but she does write in a way that's unnerving and makes us genuinely worry for Bess's safety. Even so, the young girl without parents being pursued by bad men is something I've seen too many times before, and I thought it was frustrating that the aunt she's been left with is useless in this regard. I would have thought that Bess's aunt, more than anyone, would have been aware of the kind of things that might happen to Bess without her father there to protect her.
All that aside, this is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction and a melancholic exploration of the fool's journey and the consequences of that journey for 'the fool' himself and those around him. I look forward to seeing how Davies continues to develop as a writer, and if you're in the mood for something short and sweet with a Western Frontier vibe, I'd recommend giving West a go!