When Cy Bellman, American settler and widowed father, reads in the newspaper that huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he is filled with a sense of burning purpose. 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 uncharted territory beyond the Mississippi River.
West is an unusual book and it’s taken me a little time to decide exactly what I think of it in order to be able to write this review.
Slender in size and rather thin in terms of plot, it manages to pack a remarkable amount into its 150 pages. Ostensibly a novella about one man’s journey into uncharted territory, and his daughter’s growth into womanhood back home, the book becomes so much more, transforming into a meditation of family, belonging, love, loss, loneliness and regret. It has a slow, meditative pace that belies an underlying peril and tension that results in the final few pages packing a hefty emotional punch.
Davies writing is stunning and the novella is filled with rich, lyrical prose. Her descriptions of the American landscape, one still filled with unknown dangers and uncharted territory, are lush and vivid. I could see myself riding alongside the rushing river with Bellman and his Shawnee guide, or watching the mules graze in the field with Bess alongside me. Davies has a real eye for the rhythms of the natural world and the small, intimate moments that arise from human encounters with it. It all makes for wonderfully realised prose and is an absolute joy to read as a result.
With its slow pacing and thinly-structured narrative, West won’t be a book that appeals to every reader. But this isn’t a book that you come to for the action. Instead, it invites you to read, pause and then digest. With a poignant immediacy, West has a stark narrative power that is reminiscent of a classic folk tale, a myth of the ‘Wild West’ in the making.
Offering visionary prose and a quiet, meditative narrative, West is a tale that rewards considered reading. Like a fine wine or a good meal, this is a novella to be savoured not gulped down and to be ruminated over afterwards in discussions with friends.
West by Carys Davies is published by Granta and is available now from Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. The paperback will be published on 04 April 2019. My thanks go to NB Magazine for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.