book review, Carys Davies, Chekhov, exploration, historical fiction, inner life, Kentucky, lack of sweep, Lewis and Clark, literary fiction, nineteenth century, Pennsylvania
Review: West, by Carys Davies
Scribner, 2018. 149 pp. $22
Sometime around 1817, John Cyrus Bellman, an English immigrant to central Pennsylvania, reads about old bones discovered in Kentucky, perhaps belonging to an ancient, unknown animal. Bellman has never heard the like, and he’s immediately transfixed. What kind of creature could it be? Why didn’t Captains Lewis and Clark happen on them during their explorations? Wouldn’t it be a fine thing if he, Bellman, saw these creatures and brought back news of the discovery? So he leaves his motherless eleven-year-old daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, Julie, and heads west, alone, figuring to follow Lewis and Clark’s footsteps.
It’s a grand scheme, about dreams and dreamers, beautiful in its simplicity. Is Bellman an irresponsible lunatic, as his sister thinks, burdening her with the care of a young girl who barely knew her late mother? But Bess herself, though she loves her father dearly and will miss him, believes in her heart that he’ll find the creatures he’s looking for and return to her. Bess is a dreamer herself, a solitary, sensitive child who wishes she could go to school. You sense that she has wider horizons than the few people she comes in contact with, and that she embodies her father’s spirit.
Davies, a short-story writer of note, spares few words. Her opening chapters offer a primer on how to draw the reader’s attention and allegiance. She creates tension in small moments, using simple words to convey her characters’ thoughts, as with Bellman’s, when he contemplates making his journey:
He cooked, and occasionally he cleaned, and made sure Bess had a pair of shoes on her feet, but he was silent the whole time and sometimes his eyes turned glassy and he would not let Bess come near him. The giant beasts drifted across his mind like the vast creature-shaped clouds he saw when he stood in the yard behind the house and tipped his head up to the sky. When he closed his eyes, they moved behind the lids in the darkness, slowly, silently, as if through water — they walked and they drifted, pictures continually blooming in his imagination and then vanishing into the blackness beyond, where he could not grasp them. . .
But as a novel, West doesn’t work. In fact, I have a hard time calling it a novel, and not only because its 149 pages appear as sparsely populated in sentences as early nineteenth-century Kentucky was in people. The chapters are necessarily brief bits, and though Davies’s skill at creating broad impressions from tiny details would make Chekhov nod in appreciation, the episodes barely skim the surface.
Only one paragraph, a third of the way through, gives a hint of why Bellman has this dream. But even that little is already more than the narrative suggests about Bess’s yearnings. What does she want an education for? What does she think of Lewistown, the nearest settlement, aside from the church she’s made to attend, whose services she finds empty? And what of Julie — what’s her story? What does she want, and why did she emigrate?
There’s simply not enough inner life in West to go around, which makes it all the more difficult to believe the arresting premise. Because yes, Bellman’s idea is lunacy, so much so that it’s utterly implausible. Bellman must realize, at least in part, that Lewis and Clark were more knowledgeable and better equipped than he, yet he charges ahead, with little thought of Bess or Julie. It’s also a head-scratcher why, if the creatures were sighted in Kentucky, he thinks to go a thousand miles or more past that; but never mind.
All the more reason, then, for the narrative to focus on his motives. Is he drawn by the youth and promise of the still-new country, of travelers’ reports of natural beauty, or an extension of whatever it was that led him to cross the Atlantic? West is mum about all that. Well, then, does he have a philosophical or scientific interest in possibly extinct creatures? Nope. His attraction is just mythic, and I sense that we’re supposed to accept it on the author’s say-so.
But how? Davies is so tight-fisted with details of scenery or geography — for a novel that attempts sweep, its camera eye feels devoted to close-ups — that the grandeur and scope of the country seldom come across. Such strong novels as The Landbreakers, The Way West, or News of the World succeed, in part, because they convey all that and more. From those narratives you can see how frontier America was a wild, dangerous place, and no intelligent person would have jeopardized himself or his young daughter so carelessly, unless he had the most compelling urge.
It’s that compulsion, or lack of it, that undoes West.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.