Welsh writer Carys Davies’s impressive first novel, West, opens with a spare dialogue between a widowed mule breeder and his ten-year-old daughter:
“How far must you go?”
“On where they are?”
“So how far? A thousand miles? More than a thousand miles?”
“More than a thousand miles, I think so, Bess, yes.”
We soon learn that we are in rural Pennsylvania in 1815, shortly after Lewis and Clark’s expedition into the American west, and that Cyrus Bellman has decided to leave his farm and daughter behind to make the treacherous (and in almost everyone’s opinion foolhardy) journey west in search of mammoth prehistoric creatures who he is convinced still roam the earth.
Bellman, who is “educated, up to a point,” read a newspaper account of the recently discovered remains of a gigantic creature — “the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud: teeth the size of pumpkins, shoulder blades a yard wide, jawbones that suggested a head as tall as a large man. A creature entirely unknown. An animal incognitum.”
Bellman, who we learn has already emigrated from Britain to America, is immediately and viscerally gripped by the need to see if these creatures still exist. His impulse for this quest is impossible for Bellman to express in words, it is purely physical. “Just thinking about it had given him a kind of vertigo,” we are told.
Davies is the author of two collections of short stories (Some New Ambush and The Redemption of Galen Pike) most of which are short, atmospheric, almost Gothic and full of dark humour and subtely surprising endings. Some are set in modern times but many have historical settings in Britain or frontier America.
In West, Davies displays many of the strengths of her stories. The novel is short and so are the chapters, which are told from many different perspectives, but mostly from those of Bellman himself and Bess as she grows up under the care — or perhaps benign neglect — of her stern and sour Aunt Julie for the two year span of the novel.
Bess is the only person who thinks that Bellman’s quest is heroic. Most see it as wholey irresponsible or at best quixotic (there are several allusions to Cervantes’s hapless knight). As a reader I found Bellman’s stubborness infuriating but his personal devotion to a project that continued to fill him with doubt redeemed him for me.
Wittingly or not Bellman comes to represent the settler mentality as he moves into what is for him the unknown west full of hardship but also the possibility of wonder.
This becomes more poignant as Bellman aquires his own Sancho Panza in the form of a teenage Indian guide, “an ill-favoured, narrow-shouldered Shawnee boy who bore the unpromising name of Old Woman From A Distance.” Old Woman’s tribe has been forced west by settler expansion and he knows all too well the duplicity of the white men.
Of Old Woman’s people Davies writes, “Like a dark, diminished cloud, they had moved west across the landscape away from what had been theirs.” One of the elders prophesies that in time they “would be driven to where the sun sets and in the end they would become quite extinct,” tying the Native Americans to the vanished “mammoth beasts” that Bellman seeks.
Bellman and Old Woman move across the strange western landscape in a symbiotic relationship. Bellman needs Old Woman’s skills to survive and despite his distrust Old Woman sees cooperation with the white settlers as being the only way forward for his future.
Despite his ocassional fond feelings for Old Woman, Bellman remains the master and refuses to engage with the young man in a human way. He makes no effort in their nearly two years together to teach Old Woman English or to learn his language. (There are shades of Robinson Crusoe here.)
Bellman sometimes looks at Old Woman in wonder and thinks “what would it be like to be you?” But then his thoughts return back to contemplating what the sought-after unknown animal eats or acts like or looks like.
The other strand in the novel is Bess’s coming of age story. She refuses to give up hope in her father’s return and meantime is left to mostly fend for herself. Aunt Julie, Bellman’s sister, never wanted the responsibility of raising Bess in the first place and fulfills her obligation only minimally.
As Bess ages from ten to twelve she comes under the lecherous attention (and more) of two unsavoury characters who have decided that Bellman will never return to protect his daughter. One is the town librarian who controls Bess’s access to the maps that Bellman studied before he set out on his journey.
The other is Elmer Jackson, a bachelor neighbour that Bellman charged with helping Julie on the farm in his absence. Jackson wants to get his hands on Bellman’s farm, but even more than that he wants to get his hands on Bess.
Jackson’s lust as he spies on Beth bathing shows Davies at her creepiestly Gothic: “She is a perfect little thing – reminds him of milk, or cream, cooling in the shed, a silken chill when you dip your finger but a soft warmth inside. Oh dear God, for a taste.”
The novel is very subtle about its own moral ambiguity. How important is Bellman’s chimeric quest when set against protecting Bess from the depredations of the likes of Elmer Jackson? What should we value more, curiosity or responsibility?
These are also the types of questions Davies explores in her stories and like in her stories she leavens them with brief moments of black humour. Scenes of Bellman trying to assert his dignity in front of Old Woman’s uncomprehending eyes or a scene in which Jackson, Aunt Julie and Bess arrange horses and mules for their violent mating or “covering” are disturbing but comic at the same time.
West is a short book that demonstrates enormous precision and restraint. The writing is always gorgeous and I never felt that Davies was revealing too much or too little or manipulating my emotions. It is such a big-hearted book that it seems possible to accomodate any number of conflicting responses without ever feeling false or forced.
West by Carys Davies, Scribners (US and Canada) Granta (UK) 149pp.