West by Carys Davies review stunning debut novel from a short-story writer

Not a word is wasted in this tale of American exploration that holds tragedy and comedy in delicate balance

Carys Davies won multiple awards for her 2014 short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, a spare and wonderfully varied anthology that illuminated moments of human drama against the vast backdrops of landscape, history and myth. From the isolated wife fearing the visit of a neighbour in The Quiet to the nanny who is too much in love with her charge in The Taking of Bunny Clay, her stories overturned expectations with brutal, breathtaking flair: the world could shift in a sentence.

In her slim first novel, again not a word is wasted; the canvas is as wide as her brush is fine. It opens abruptly, as though lights are coming up on a dark stage: How far must you go? That depends. On where they are? Yes. Gradually we orient ourselves; we are in Pennsylvania, 1815, where settler Cy Bellman is jolted out of grief for his dead wife by a curious notion: that the animals whose gigantic bones have recently been dug out of a Kentucky swamp might still be wandering about in the unexplored territories of the west. Despite the ridicule of his no-nonsense sister Julie, he equips himself with trinkets to trade with the natives and a new stovepipe hat to intimidate them and sets off on a one-man, thousand-mile expedition, promising to be back in a year or possibly two. I have to go. I have to go and see. Thats all I can tell you.

His 10-year-old daughter Bess has no doubt hell return; Julie is equally convinced that he wont; and their down-at-heel neighbour Elmer, labouring on the farm while Bellman is away, has increasingly ominous plans to become one of the family. The novel encompasses all their perspectives, as well as the Shawnee boy with the unpromising name of Old Woman from a Distance whom Bellman employs as a servant. Seasons pass in a sentence as Bellman makes his way west, pressing letters to Bess into the hands of travellers going in the opposite direction, scratching pictures in the soil of what he imagines the colossal creatures might look like and meeting only with blank faces or amusement. The extremities of his physical hardship are calmly described, and the grand vistas of wilderness trees and rivers, the sky and stars, the bright, broken face of the moon just as economically summoned.

Native
Native Americans are displaced as the line of European settlement advances. Photograph: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Of course, Bellman is not the only one on the move: Native Americans are being displaced from eastern territories as the line of European settlement advances. Old Woman from a Distances tribe moved west like a dark, diminished cloud, only discovering when they unpacked the goods theyd bargained for how badly they had been tricked. One elder prophesies that a time would come when they would know that the whole of the earth had been pulled from beneath the skin of their feet that they will vanish into the setting sun as surely as the megafauna whose fossilised bones have gripped Bellmans imagination.

Extinction and collective loss, then, are the dark shadows cast by this story of individualistic folly and ambition, the counternarrative to all the endless possibilities projected on to the unexplored west. With marvellous economy, Davies maps the large, unknown interior territory where Bellman hopes to find his beasts on to her characters inner landscapes. Her narrative world includes vast open spaces of both incomprehension and possibility, as when Bellman and Old Woman from a Distance lie awake in the dark, with Bellman reassured by the boys alertness and the boy caught up in recollections of past atrocities. Bellman roars Mine when he finds the boy wearing his hat, but he never teaches him English; language, the boy thinks, is another weapon Europeans did not want to give away.

The novel is studded with lists: of the meagre contents of Bellmans house, the things he takes with him, the geegaws the settlers trade in exchange for an entire way of life. (The hat has a starring role.) What can be named is outweighed by everything that cannot. Enumerating the manmade elements of the frontier world highlights the fragility of humans within it, how little they have to shore up against the wilderness. The striped blouse and knitting needles that belonged to Besss mother, which she was so sorry to see her father take away, will return to her but transformed beyond all expectation.

One of the most unsettling elements is Daviess vein of dark, gleaming humour. Her writing manages the odd feat of seeming both timeless and historically specific, and her comedy is no exception. Julies friend puts Bellmans grand dreams down to no more than a male midlife crisis: Theres a childish dissatisfaction with everything they have, Julie, that reveals itself as they approach forty mostly in my experience they take up with other women or buy themselves a new horse or a fancy hat. That Bellmans name seems a tip of said hat to the hero of Lewis Carrolls nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark another miniature epic about overblown ambitions and the search for wonder in no way diminishes the seriousness of Daviess project. She holds comedy and tragedy in equal, delicate balance.

And she balances each individual consciousness against the dizzying weight of all the mystery of the earth and everything in it and beyond it that unknown which so tempts Bellman. There are many worlds to explore within this deceptively short book, which gallops towards its conclusion with a mythic inevitability. You wont be able to turn back.

West is published by Granta. To order a copy for 8.99 (RRP 12.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

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