We all have those books we look forward to. Those writers we like. The ones we come back too. The ones that we follow. There is reliable joy there, for the most part. But how much better it is when a book comes from left field. When you don’t know the writer. When your interest is piqued. You pick up a book and – boom. There it is. Belter! Such is the case with Carys Davies’ debut novel, West. For whatever reason (the fault is ours), we missed her short stories – Some New Ambush & The Redemption of Galen Pike (but it’s a mistake we’ll be seeking to rectify). The novel just arrived unannounced. West. Here you go.
This is a short novel (running just shy of 150 pages) set in the old west (the title, we presume, implying both the movement west and also the period, when – presumably – they wouldn’t have referred to the epoch as the old west, it would’ve just been west). Bellman is setting out on a journey, leaving his young daughter Bess with his sister Julie. His plan, if you could call it a plan, is inspired by a newspaper clipping he has found about huge bones – he suspects that these animals are still alive, out there, waiting to be found, and whoever discovers them will have his fortune made for him. Bellman has recently lost his wife, and he has been struggling and the quest has given him a new lease of life. He tells his daughter he won’t be long, no more than a year or two. A year or two? she replies all but dumbstruck.
Via chapters that run, for the most part, three or four pages, we follow Bellman on his journey, we stay with Bess as she contends with what people in the town think about her father (he’s a fool!), we dog the heels of Elmer Jackson, a local who has helped around Bellman’s farm and who now has his eye on Bess even though she’s only just eleven years old, we are introduced to a young Indian brave known as Old Woman From a Distance, given his diminutive size. We get to share in Bellman’s magnificent optimism, see the world as it opens in front of him, share in his doubts and his hopes. We understand how easily troubled Bess is by what the people around her want for her (marriage, one day) when all she really wants for herself is a library card and the ability to read (although, again, each brave foray into the world brings with it dangers, in the shape of men and what they would like to do to her). Perhaps best of all, we get to see their worlds refracted through the young Indian brave, Old Woman, who has seen his people tricked out of what is rightfully theirs, who carries with him a terrible deed perpetrated against his sister by a ginger-haired white man, a man, we learn, not too dissimilar to Bellman himself.
The writing feels powerfully pared back. We’d imagine that Davies is a rigorous re-writer, a pruner, someone busy cutting away at the wood until the bare features, only the most necessary details, remain. It really is a terrific novel. Sometimes that is all that needs to be said. This book came, as we said, from left field and knocked us out like a roundhouse punch to the muzzle. We’ll be reading Davies’ short stories as a matter of urgency and we’ll be looking out for whatever she does next with keen interest.
Any Cop?: West has the quiet power of a Kelly Reichardt film (we’re thinking Meek’s Cut-off). Don’t let this one pass you by.