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‘West’ by Carys Davies ****

Carys Davies’ West is a novella which I heard a lot of buzz about last year, and was eager to try out myself.  The author has previously won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and West is her first longer length work.  Colm Toibin writes that it has ‘all the stark power and immediacy of a folk tale or a legend’, and goes on to call Davies ‘a writer of immense talent’.  In her review, Tea Obreht calls Davies ‘a deft, audacious visionary.  In West, she breaks open our fascination with fated journeys and the irrepressible draw of the unknown, imbuing the American landscape with her own rare magic.’  Claire Messud’s praise for the novella was the biggest draw for me personally, as she is an author whom I have come to highly admire over the last year.  She says: ‘To read West is to encounter a myth, or a potent dream – a narrative at once new and timeless.  Exquisite, continent, utterly vivid, it will live on in your imagination long after you read the last page.’

9781925603538West tells the story of Cy Bellman, an American settler, widower, and the father of a ten-year-old girl named Bess.  He sets off from his home in semi-rural Pennsylvania for Kentucky, after hearing that ‘huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp… [and] is filled with a sense of burning purpose’.  He wishes to find out if the ‘rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted territory beyond the Mississippi River.’  West goes on to write of the effect which these beasts have upon Bellman: ‘There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was.’

In West, Davies charts Bellman’s journey westward into the wilderness, whilst concurrently telling the reader about young Bess, ‘unprotected and approaching womanhood, waiting at home for her father to return.’  At the outset of the novella, when Bess learns about her father’s journey, Davies writes: ‘She was quiet a moment, and there was a serious, effortful look about her, as if she was trying to imagine a journey of such magnitude.’  Indeed, in the days of Bellman’s travels, and setting out with a horse as his sole method of transportation, the journey would take at least a year, possibly two.  Fascinated as he is by exploration, he fully expects that he will be travelling for much longer than another man might; he will be ‘diverging’ from his 2,000 mile route across country, so that he can ‘have a look in some of the big empty areas the two captains didn’t get to.’

On the morning on which Bellman leaves, his sister, Julie, who is tasked with taking care of Bess, tells her niece: ‘Regard him… this person, this fool, my brother John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one.  From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad.  Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes.  Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.’  Despite her aunt’s insistence, Bess is steadfastly loyal, and does not allow herself to doubt her father: ‘In her opinion he looked grand and purposeful and brave.  In her opinion he looked intelligent and romantic and adventurous.’

I found the narrative, which uses the third person perspective throughout, to be immersive.  The structure, which comprises very short sections, is effective, and allows attention to be paid to both Bellman and Bess.  The novella, however, is weighted in Bellman’s favour, and considers his journey and experiences far more than it does Bess’; in many ways, she feels like a character who has unfortunately not been fully explored.

One of Davies’ strengths is the way in which she captures the motion and movement of her characters.  Whilst I felt that West ends in rather an odd manner, the story has been well plotted.  Davies includes descriptions only sparsely in her narrative, but what she writes is evocative: ‘He marvelled at the beauty of his surroundings: the pale gray ribbon of the river; the dark trees; in the distance the bright spread cloth of the prairie, undulating and soft; the bruised blue silk of the sky.’  I enjoyed the prose throughout West; it is sometimes quite understated, but lovely elements are sometimes woven in: ‘There were times, out here in the west,  when he lay down at night and, wrapped in his coat, he’d look up at the bright, broken face of the moon and wondered what might be up there too – what he’d find if he could just devise a way of getting there to have a look.’

When Bellman procures a Native guide, West introduces elements of the mixing of cultures.  Whilst this is interesting on a lot of levels it is, like Bess’ character, something which does not feel fully explored due to the brevity of the story.  There is certainly depth and power  to be found here, but I cannot help but think West would have been more successful had it spanned the length of a novel, rather than that of a novella.  Bellman’s story really could have soared had it had chance to spool out within a longer book.

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Poem: ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning

THAT’S my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said 
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps 
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:” such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad.
Too easily impressed: she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favor at her breast, 
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence 
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Robert Browning