How far must you go in order to come to terms with loss? That is the question posed by Carys Davies’ West, as one widower processes his grief by setting out to explore the American frontier in a quest everyone around him agrees is doomed to failure.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of Davies’ short stories, having read both of her collections and reviewed her first, Some New Ambush. So, when I heard that she was about to bring out her debut novel, I was very keen to get my hands on the book to see how her skills as a short-form writer translated to a longer work of fiction. I am grateful to Granta for supplying me with a review copy of West in exchange for this review.
West is set in the early years of the 19th Century, and follows Pennsylvanian settler and mule farmer Cy Bellingham who, after reading a newspaper article about the discovery of huge, unidentifiable bones in a Kentucky swamp, decides to leave behind his daughter Bess and explore the wild, unknown lands west of the Mississippi. He is convinced that the bones are evidence that gigantic beasts must roam America’s uncharted territories. Taking with him a horse, supplies, and a few trinkets of his late wife, he sets out on his mission, ignoring the naysayers and leaving Bess in the care of his sister, promising that he will return in two years’ time.
To call West a novel is an exaggeration. It runs to just 149 pages, and is made up of brief, self-contained sections (they feel too short, in my opinion, to be called chapters). The story constantly moves back and forth between different characters’ perspectives: first between Bellman and Bess, and later including Old Woman from a Distance, the young Native American man who accompanies Bellman on his travels, Bellman’s old neighbour Elmer Jackson, and others. Davies also shifts the action back and forth through time, so that it’s never fully clear or not if Bess’s experiences are running parallel to Bellman’s. This is a clever idea, emphasising the disconnect between father and daughter that is established in the stunted final conversation they share before Bellman departs:
“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.”
But, while these sections serve a purpose, I was disappointed not to encounter in West a more robust, conventionally structured narrative. Davies’ writing is, as expected, beautifully controlled and absorbing, with hidden depths running through her text. Sometimes, though, I found myself as disconnected from the text as Bellman is from his daughter, and I longed for her to open up the story a little more and let the reader in.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the meaning Davies injects into the concept of “going west”, something which grew on me as I read. Not merely Bellman’s journey to find the beasts he has read and dreamt about, but also his journey with his late wife from Europe to America, to the soil in which she would eventually be buried. Death is inexorably intertwined with journeying west. There’s the beasts themselves, which the reader knows to be fossils of long-extinct species but which Bellman regards merely as a sign of as-yet-unseen life. He is unwavering in his belief of them, telling his sister Julie that “they feel very real to me… the only thing in the world I want to do now, is to go out there, into the west, and find them.”
But is it the beasts he is really looking for, or a way to come to terms with his wife’s death? Indeed, might he even be looking, on some level, for his wife, equating the unexplored west with another seemingly unreachable plane of existence, where extinct monsters roam free and his wife is safe and happy? If so, it’s a dream father and daughter share; Bess “begins to let herself dream that while [Bellman’s] been gone he has managed to find not only the big monsters he was looking for but also his mother”.
Eventually, Bellman’s journey west has to end, and the climax of the book follows the return journey east. Without spoiling anything, I did enjoy the cyclical nature of this climax; the reappearance of Bellman’s wife’s trinkets, particularly the knitting needle, brought a smile to my face. For the most part, though, I found the ending a little dissatisfying. The two plot strands converge in something of a convenient coincidence of timing that feels a tad forced. From a writer who I consider to be a master of the twist ending, I have to say I saw the ending of West coming, which was a little disappointing.
I came to West to see how Davies applied her short-story skills to long-form writing, and to be honest, I feel as though I am still waiting. Rather than the ‘epic in minature’ the blurb promises, this book feels more like an extended piece of flash fiction: so much depth of meaning beneath the surface-level text when, as a novel, it could have been afforded more space to breathe.
Still, it is unfair to judge any book on what I wanted it to be, rather than what it is. West is beautifully written, and I can appreciate how other readers will thoroughly enjoy the book, Fans of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, especially, should pick up a copy of West: not only do they both follow epic journeys across 19th Century America, but both balance taut, controlled language with poetic description. As for me, I am still curious to read more of her work in the future, but West didn’t live up to the heights of Davies’ short stories. That, I feel, is as much my own fault as anything. Like Bellman, I came to West looking for something that I was never going to find.
West is out now in the UK and US. Thank you to Granta for sending me a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.