WEST by Carys Davies - my review
This book was, for me a very fast read, it's a short book with a big punch.
It tells the story of Cy Bellmann, a pioneering Brit who has previously emigrated to Pennsylvania to farm mules and horses, this act alone tells us he is man not averse to taking a great risk to achieve what he wants in life even if it is to the cost of those dear to him, you'd think he'd be satisfied with what he has! Now widowed and left alone with just his young daughter Bess who is now 10, for company, like many of us, he knows there must be something greater than his humdrum life.
He's only 35 but boy does this guy have a sudden mid life crisis. He hears news of a momentous discovery far away in Kentucky, a pile of colossal animal bones. He is convinced this skeleton reveals the presence of a yet undiscovered wondrous living creature and it ignites a fire in him he hasn't felt since before his wife died, he burns to be the one to find this huge animal.
Talk about throwing caution to the wind - he buys a new hat and overcoat, clambers on a horse and sets off in a Westerly direction, abandoning his only daughter to the not so tender ministration of his curmudgeonly spinster sister Julie telling her vaguely he may be back in a couple of years.
The book in turns follows his trail throughout the wild and inhospitable West as he follows his unlikely and foolhardy quest. Then it follows Bess as she matures without the love of a parent, and spends time at the library trying to follow his likely progress on maps.
The book is sparse without much of the embroidery and detail which often fills works of pioneers on a great journey yet it paints a starkly beautiful image of a land so vast that it is indeed possible creatures could be hiding and never have been seen in living memory. Cy encounters Native Indians and gets himself a travel companion/guide, a young American Indian lad with a wonderful tongue in cheek name, who speaks not a word of English.
Meanwhile whilst he is away, Bess grows older and begins to attract very unwelcome attention of the wrong sort and her Aunt who barely even acknowledges her is no protector.
This is a simple tale of how grief coupled with a deep yearning can cause us to lose sight of the treasures we already have, in the never ending quest for "there must be more than this".
It is also about seeking atonement and mentally punishing oneself for past deeds, whilst telling oneself that it is for the greater good that one makes decisions and not for self gratification.
It is a delectably enjoyable book and is almost allegorical in its nature with the extinct species at the heart of the tale continuing to have an impact over the years, how grief manifests itself as guilt and no matter how deeply buried the skeletons are they eventually rise to the surface, and the moral that even if there is something bigger than us out there it doesn't necessarily follow that it is what we need for our own survival.
The ending is satisfying and the path to reach it is a terrible and awesome journey of deprivation and dogged determination. A lovely little fable with great characters.
When Cy Bellman, American settler and widowed father of Bess, reads in the newspaper that huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he leaves his small Pennsylvania farm and young daughter to find out if the rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River.
West is the story of Bellman's journey and of Bess, waiting at home for her father to return. Written with compassionate tenderness and magical thinking, it explores the courage of conviction, the transformative power of grief, the desire for knowledge and the pull of home, from an exceptionally talented and original British writer. It is a radiant and timeless epic-in-miniature, an eerie, electric monument to possibility.
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