West by Carys Davies
West was shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, and I’m so glad it was, so that when I spotted the new paperback in my local bookshop I bought a copy. In a mere 149 pages, Davies has written a story of epic scale. It’s just superb! Let me tell you a little about it.
West is set during the pioneer days in America. Cy Bellman is a settler, he’s also widowed and father to young Bess who is ten. As the novel starts, he is leaving on an adventure, Bess will stay with her aunt Julie, who admonishes her:
“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.”
But Bess will think no such thing. As an inquisitive girl, she wishes she could have gone with him in search of the giant creatures whose bones had been found in Kentucky. Cy believes he will find them alive out west. We will return to Bess periodically, as she grows up, waits patiently for letters to come, and is irritated by her aunt’s strictures and the societal norms of the time that brand her father a hopeless case and her as a girl to be married off quickly, the creepy town Librarian has his eye on her!
Meanwhile Cy travels west on his trusty steed, roughly following the river upstream so as not to get lost. He writes many letters to Bess, leaving them with those he meets going back east to carry on for him. Eventually Cy needs help to navigate his way, and the fur trader Devereux knows just the right person:
Bellman had met many eccentrically named natives in the course of his long journey but none so peculiarly labeled as this one. Old Woman From a Distance was, he estimated, about sixteen years old, though it was hard to tell. (…)
Devereux was right about the boy being not so well made as most of the others – he was barely five feet tall, his legs were bowed and rickety, and his eyes were very small, like pips, but he had a sharp, eager look about him,
Devereux has known the Shawnee boy since he was a child, and used him for errands and carrying messages for some time. The boy is happy to help Cy in return for payment – in baubles, ribbons and trinkets. The two can’t speak each other’s languages, but they manage to communicate well enough, and the boy’s hunting and fishing skills are really useful in addition to knowing the landscape. Increasingly, we get to read the boy’s thoughts alongside Cy’s, and it’s not a surprise to find that his people have been treated very badly. Naturally he’s angry about it, but prefers to work his way out, being helpful and hard-working. Cy however, begins to lose faith in his quest, as the seasons pass and the weather and cold make life so difficult.
Poor young Bess left waiting at home, reminded me of Sophie in Eowyn Ivey’s (much longer, but still excellent) second novel, To The Bright Edge of the World (see here) who is left behind at the fort while her husband goes off to chart rivers in Alaska. With her husband gone, Sophie has to make a life for herself, and takes up photography – Bess has the library. There are probably many other examples of this kind of American pioneer novel, where the women stay behind – it was never really an option back then.
This novella is an epic in miniature; there is nothing superfluous in the text, just beautiful writing which encompasses the passing of time, the changes in the landscape, but also has an emotional heft that is so involving. There is much more to the story than I’ve hinted at above, the plotting is also superb. A one-sitting read that you’ll want to revisit, I can’t recommend this book enough. (10/10)
Source: Own copy. Carys Davies, West (Granta, 2018), now in paperback, 149 pages.