BookBrowse Reviews West by Carys Davies

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West by Carys Davies X
West by Carys Davies
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 160 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 128 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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In the early 19th century, a man journeys into the uncharted American West in search of colossal creatures and a renewed sense of wonder.

After the untimely death of his wife, Pennsylvanian mule breeder John Cyrus Bellman becomes obsessed by a newspaper article reporting the discovery of "monstrous bones" in the wilderness that are "bleached and pale and vast, like a wrecked fleet or the parched ribs of a church roof." Cy dreams of setting eyes on these mammoth creatures that possibly still roam the uncharted American frontier. What spurs him on is not glory or repute, but the chance that there exist things yet unseen. With a promise to return in two years, he leaves his farm and ten-year-old daughter Bess under the care of his unapproving sister, and journeys West. As Cy travels further away from civilization with the guidance of a Shawnee boy named Old Woman From A Distance, Bess fills her lonely days tracing her father's progress in library maps, eagerly awaiting his return.

While West is a slim novel, it rarely feels slight. The search for the unknown is the thematic backbone here and Davies has done well to present Cy's ambition as both noble quest and fool's errand. Friends and neighbors deem his journey to be a "lunatic adventure" and his own sister openly numbers him "among the lost and the mad." But as consumers of fiction steeped in the age-old tradition of quest stories, we are seemingly predisposed to root for the underdog adventurer who is ridiculed and mocked but who, against all odds, usually attains his Holy Grail in the end. As such, we begin the journey with Cy sharing Bess's rose-tinted regard for her father as "grand and purposeful [...] intelligent and romantic," whose mission "made him different from other people."

What Davies has deftly exposed in this fast-paced novella is the fallout of such single-minded ambitions where loved ones become collateral in even the most admirable of selfish pursuits. While Cy is off seeking enlightenment in the wilderness, Bess is left fatherless and exposed to hometown dangers. Would a historic discovery absolve an absent parent and atone for leaving a young child unguarded? While she sets up such loaded questions, Davies thankfully never doles out any simplistic, didactic truths.

Through the sullen Shawnee boy, Davies also investigates a different kind of journey to the West. In Cy's employment, this ambitious young man slowly acquires an appetite for Western materialism and personal wealth, even if it is limited to the currency of knickknacks and scraps of clothing Cy pays him in. The fellow travelers form an unusual bond during their hardships on the road. The unforgiving land and weather conditions forces them to depend on each other, yet without a shared language they are never able to get to know one another.

There was perhaps an opportunity for West to be a weightier, more immersive book. As such its brevity never thoroughly explores the sheer scale and vastness of Cy's expedition across America. Too much of the journey is glossed over in stark, unadorned sentences which at times robs the alien terrain of its sublime beauty. Furthermore, the constant flitting between the two main narratives in such a confined space doesn't allow for much more than an acquaintanceship with the characters. As it is, this novella is almost parable-like in its concise clarity but complex and ambiguous enough to never be a simple moral tale.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2018, and has been updated for the May 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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