Summary and book reviews of West by Carys Davies

West by Carys Davies X
West by Carys Davies
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 160 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2, 2019, 128 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat

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Book Summary

An exquisite, slender first novel set on the American frontier about a restless widower who heads west on a foolhardy and perilous expedition in search of unknown animals, leaving his intrepid young daughter behind to fend for herself at home.

Addled by grief and dissatisfaction, thirty-five-year-old mule breeder John Cyrus Bellman takes one step and then another. With a small compass and meager provisions, he sets off into the wild frontier beyond his small farm in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, on a doomed quest prompted by reports of colossal animal bones found in Kentucky. Promising to return in two years, Bellman leaves behind his only daughter Bess to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister Julie. With only a battered wall clock, her dead mother's gold ring, and a barnyard full of miserable animals to call her own, Bess is forced to make her way in a deceptively hostile world, tracing her father's path with arcane maps at the local subscription library and shrinking from the attentions paid to her and her aunt by their peculiar neighbor Elmer Jackson.

Meanwhile, Bellman ventures farther into the harsh and alien landscape of the west, forging an uneasy but intimate fellowship with his guide, an American Indian boy who regards him with both suspicion and a piercing understanding. As father and daughter alike reach out into their own respective wildernesses, they find that the wilderness holds out its hands to them as well.

Bold and lyrical, this brief epic transports readers to the beginning of the nineteenth century to explore themes of reckless determination, existential yearning, wonder, and isolation in a majestic and unforgiving landscape.

West

From what she could see he had two guns, a hatchet, a knife, his rolled blanket, the big tin chest, various bags and bundles, one of which, she supposed, contained her mother's things.

"How far must you go?"

"That depends."

"On where they are?"

"Yes."

"So how far? A thousand miles? More than a thousand miles?"

"More than a thousand miles, I think so, Bess, yes."

Bellman's daughter was twirling a loose thread that hung down from his blanket, which until this morning had lain upon his bed. She looked up at him. "And then the same back."

"The same back, yes."

She was quiet a moment, and there was a serious, effortful look about her, as if she was trying to imagine a thousand miles.

"But worth it if you find them."

"I think so, Bess. Yes."

He saw her looking at his bundles and his bags and the big tin chest, and wondered if she was thinking about Elsie's things. He hadn't meant her to see him packing them.

She was drawing a ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. West opens on the morning Bellman is preparing to leave his farm in Pennsylvania to head to the unsettled territories. What does "west" mean to Bellman, and how does its significance contrast with what it represents for his daughter, Bess, his sister, Julie, and his neighbor, Elmer Jackson?
  2. Bellman can only explain his response to the giant animal bones in terms of bodily sensations: "There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was" (p. 16). How would you articulate, using the words he can't summon, the reasons that the animals ignite such a profound yearning in...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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. 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.   (Reviewed by Dean Muscat).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though the ending may come across as formulaic, it is nonetheless dramatically satisfying and doesn't detract from this otherworldly novel.

Library Journal
This spare first novel from Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award winner Davies incorporates early American history to lend deep truths to the narrative's alternating stories. Her graceful prose and sharp observations make this absorbing debut a standout.

Booklist
Starred Review. A tightly-knit, compulsively readable tale…Davies' slender novel has all the heft of a sprawling western classic.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. [S]lim, complex, and achingly beautiful...A masterful first novel—the sort of book that warms even as it devastates, that forces serious reflection and yet charms.

Author Blurb Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife
West proves what in-the-know lovers of her short stories have already been trumpeting: Carys Davies is a deft, audacious visionary, a master of the form. In West, she breaks open our fascination with fated journeys and the irrepressible draw of the unknown, imbuing the American landscape with her own rare magic, twisting the heart as few others can, brilliantly navigating the tension between narrative minimalism and imaginative opulence.

Author Blurb Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs
To read Carys Davies' West is to encounter a myth, or a potent dream - a narrative at once new and timeless. Exquisite, continent, utterly vivid, this short novel will live on in your imagination long after you read the last page.

Author Blurb Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn and House of Names
West has all the stark power and immediacy of a folk-tale or a legend. It is also structured with great artistry, a beguiling sense of form and pace, and a depth in the way the characters are created, making clear that Carys Davies is a writer of immense talent.

Author Blurb Akhil Sharma, author of Family Life and A Life of Adventure and Delight
An audacious and enigmatic debut of thrilling dimensions, and a reminder of fiction's possibilities.

Author Blurb Salvatore Scibona, author of The End
A story of determination, betrayal, folly, and reckless hope written in the grand tradition of the pioneer...The seams between imagination and history in this extraordinary story are invisible. I believed every word.

Author Blurb Bernard MacLaverty, author of Midwinter Break and Cal
West is a journey and a wonder. A man leaves what he loves and goes west in search of the amazing. A story concerned with value and language, love and absence, life and death. A debut of real distinction.

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Beyond the Book

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Meriwether Lewis and William ClarkCarys Davies' novella West, is set a decade after the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Protagonist John Cyrus Bellman's obsession with journeying into the West echoes the ambitions and objectives of the famous adventurers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who desired to explore the unknown American frontier and detail what they found there.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition took place over two years from 1804 to 1806, and it was the first European expedition to cross the continental divide and travel through the western portion of the United States to reach the Pacific Northwest. The journey began in St. Louis, Missouri in May 1804, and continued through what today are known as Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska.

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