Author: Carys Davies
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: May 2018
I’ll be vacationing in Nashville soon and was curious about reading material connected to some part of Tennessee. I found the Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, and got about 30 pages in before I realized I didn’t have it in me to finish the 460 or so pages of prose. I still enjoy long books, but I have to be really into the project of reading them, and this one just wasn’t going to sustain my interest. As the years slip by I’m drawn to the short and slim. Call it a hunger for quantity of titles read, or call it a fractured amount of free time. (Correct answer: all of the above.)
So instead, I chose to read Carys Davies’ West. It doesn’t have any Tennessee as far as I can tell, but it has some flavor of American history. In fact it has quite a few similarities to another recent read: News of the World by Paulette Jiles. That book featured the unlikely pair of an old man and a young white girl raised by the Kiowa traveling together through Texas. Davies’ story is about a man approaching middle age named Cy Bellman, who leaves behind his pre-teen daughter, Bess, to go searching for monstrous land animals whose bones he read about in the papers. So there’s the connection between man and girl. Bellman’s traveling companion turns out to be a disrespected but enterprising young Indian named Old Woman From A Distance—and there you have the culture clash road trip pairing.
Cy Bellman has a romantic nature and the reader wants to root for him, but also curse him because he left his daughter behind with a cold and pious aunt. The perspectives switch between several characters, which serves the plot given their distances across geography, although I felt that we learned only just enough of the inner mind of Bess and Old Woman From A Distance to serve Cy’s story. Here is where I’m conflicted about the length: at a brisk 149 pages it’s an appealing page-turner, but I think another 100 pages could have been appropriate to flesh out more of this dusty American tale.
I would vote for a few of those extra pages going toward the protagonist’s obsession with the animal icognitum. He sketches it while writing letters home, and the beast is probably a mammoth of some sort, because it’s described as having tusks. Although maybe it’s a saber-toothed cat? I wish some of the character’s sketches were included between the chapter breaks to help illustrate, literally, the sense of wonder that bloomed in Cy upon hearing about them.
One effective connection that Davies makes is between the doomed beasts and the fate of Indians who faced the encroachment of white settlers. She writes of the latter: “They would be driven to where the sun sets and in the end they would become quite extinct.” This is a wink to the reader, because of course Cy Bellman doesn’t believe that the mysterious animals have gone extinct (plus, the religion of the time wouldn’t have allowed the opinion anyway).
And fellow readers, what do you think of this feeling? The feeling I had while approaching the final chapters: a minor dread for what would happen to the daughter, Bess, and the sense forming in my mind that the plot outcome would dictate whether I recommended the book. (Specifically, I’m considering giving it to my parents as a thank-you gift for watching the kids while my wife and I are in Nashville.) If things turned too dark for the character, I’m not sure I’d hand over the story. But if things turned out more or less okay, I could go out and buy a copy. The distinction touches on what we want from a story, and I don’t handle bleak endings well these days. Although I’m not leaving home to chase beasts, I still want my gifts and communications to have meaning. The gift of a book suggests that you think it’s worth someone’s time to read it, and I’ve not been very good at vetting book gifts in the past.
Perhaps I can relate to Cy Bellman: “You had so many ways of deciding which way to live your life. It made his head spin to think of them. It hurt his heart to think that he had decided on the wrong way.”
Cover art corner: I don’t remember which site or list put this title in front of me, but my interest in seeking it out had at least 98% to do with the cover. The artist nailed this one.