‘The dizzying weight of the earth and everything in it and beyond it’
In contrast to our last read, the long novel Middlesex, this month we read the novella West, the first novel by an award winning short story writer and poet, Carys Davies. Although slim, the book deals with big, some say, mythic themes., exploring our relationship with the environment.
The protagonist John Bellman emigrated to Pennsylvania from England in 1805 with his wife who died leaving him to grieve with a young daughter Kate. His sister Julia accompanied them, a grimmer version of Marilla in Anne of Green Gables.
Bellman reads about dinosaur fossils discovered in the West and becomes completely obsessed with the belief in some of these enormous creatures still roaming in unexplored regions. He equips himself with basic necessities and trinkets to trade with the Native Americans . He also buys a stovepipe hat to impress them, a sensible purchase as it turns out. In 1815 he sets out, a heroic figure on horseback as viewed by his daughter and scorned by his sister.
The novel then has two stories – that of Bellman as he makes his perilous way over thousands of miles, initially following the Mississippi River, and then uncharted territory; and that of Kate, left behind with her aunt, a vulnerable girl for predatory men.
Eventually Bellman is accompanied by a young Shawnee called ‘Old woman from a Distance’ who is skilled at navigation and hunting and for two years together they struggle through beautiful but inhospitable terrain and extremes of freezing winters and hot summers. The Shawnee comes from a displaced tribe who were cheated by white settlers and he has witnessed brutalities including the rape of his sister.
The novel is skilfully shaped and beautifully written, reflecting her background as a poet. The influence of the short story is evident in the spare but effective language – the extreme conditions of winter are shown in a short but effective paragraph and are made very real. Characters’ feelings and opinions are succinctly expressed by their actions – I enjoyed the scene where Bellman tells Julia of his plans as she fiercely plucks a chicken.
It is a multi -layered book; the story of an adventure echoing the spirit that drove people out to overcome unbelievable hardship and discover the huge interior of the West. The treatment of the Native Americans is an important part of the story but is shown with a light touch and the developing relationship between Bellman and the Shawnee is sensitively handled.
The novel ends as it began – with Kate watching a man riding away on horseback, a scene that is both poignant and humorous.
The book has received enthusiastic critical acclaim and the book group were almost unanimous in their praise. We recommend it.
Our next book is The Dancing Tree by Kiran Milwood Hargrave.