One of the best discoveries of my blogging time has got to be Carys Davies’ fiction. I first read her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike, when I was judging Fiction Uncovered as a submission in 2015, and I remember thinking about whether we could give all of the prize money, it was that good. Each story defied expectations without the need to twist the story, and each had an epic scope, even if it was a page long. I read her debut collection Some New Ambush in early 2016 and was blown away again. I was very, very, very excited when I heard that she had written her first novel West, although of course I immediately got nervous about whether I would love it or not. I finally turned to it earlier this month and fell helplessly in love with Davies’ writing again.
“Take a long, hard look at your father’s outgoing form, Bess,” said her aunt Julie in a loud voice like a proclamation from the porch.
“Look at him, Bess, this person, this fool, my brother, John Cyrus Bellman, for you won’t smack a bigger one in the eyes. From today I count him among the lost and mad. Don’t expect to see him again and don’t wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes. Come in now, child, close the door and forget about him. “
This is what Bess’ Aunt Julia says when Cy Bellman leaves his family home in Pennsylvania in search of the ‘mammoth beasts’ whose remains have been found’ in the West ‘. The discovery, or even capture, of these beasts that Cy believes will make his name and, more importantly to him, will improve the lives of himself and his daughter, whom he will have to leave heartbroken. Many consider him crazy for going on such a journey, which is sure to bring many dangers. In fact, many people believe he won’t make it again. But he does so and leaves his daughter Bess in the safe care of his sister. What he didn’t think, however, is that Bess may have as many dangers at home as it could be if he had taken her.
At this early stage, the novel splits over time into the two stories of Bellman and his daughter. We follow Cy on a journey that could take him anywhere, through small towns where he hires the help of a young local Shawnee boy named Old Woman From A Distance to help him with additional knowledge about the Dangers to travel further that could be in stock. Back in Pennsylvania, while her aunt regularly reminds her that she is likely now an orphan, Bess faces the difficult danger, or a young servant and an elderly librarian, both directed towards her and not necessarily required to marry. I found this allusion to the fact that men will have to look far and wide for danger, while danger women will look closer to home, both a brilliant analogy of the two 1800s, when the book was discontinued, and the one still prevalent today, rather poignant.
I won’t reveal anything more about the book, but I will say that the sense of fear and brooding atmosphere for Bess and Cy as the book goes on pulsates through each line until it comes to a memorable conclusion. Not a word is wasted as Davies takes us hundreds of miles with Cy through vast expanses or hundreds of days at home to find out how society and the world work for Bess. It’s a mini-epic in its truest form.
For a week he lay under his protection and did not move. Everything was frozen and when he couldn’t get his fire going, he burned the last fish because it seemed better to starve than to be cold.
And then one night he heard the ice booming and cracking in the river, and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.
Later that day he caught a small fish.
Berries appeared on the trees and bushes.
Winter ended and spring came and he drove further west.
What adds all the more to its epic nature is the interweaving of both major themes of the time and mini-stories that can only contain a sentence or two or a paragraph at most. The early 19th century was a tumultuous time in the United States, with Indians evicted and pillaged their land, and indeed the people there. This is never explicitly discussed or shown, the tension between Cy and Old Woman From A Distance says it all, while their power struggle develops without a common language, just a common ground, both of which are trying to gain responsibility over the other. Back in Pennsylvania, when we meet some of Bess’s fellow citizens, we discover love stories that were almost innocent people with much darker hearts.
West showed me once again why I love writing Carys Davies. In her vast landscapes, Davies also creates mini-worlds that are the power of all her prose and narration. In fact, let’s call it story weaving because it feels like it’s so intricately woven together. There’s no problem with the never-ending floral prose, however, it’s beautifully crafted short and sweet sentences that condense what some writers might need for a chapter. She also has the power to make you laugh darkly before your heart gets broken. For all of these reasons, I would highly recommend you read West and get lost in some of the most beautiful scriptures for a few hours. If you haven’t already, go straight to Davies’ Short Stories.