A fan of the British television science-fiction television series “Dr. Who,” I’m also a devotee of what I call the TARDIS novel: bigger on the inside than on the outside. Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters,” Jim Crace’s “Being Dead,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” — a short work, in the agile hands of a master, can pack a wallop of compression and epiphany. Carys Davies’ “West” falls squarely in this tradition, a lithe yet lyrical meditation on obsession, violence, and the yoke of family.
Rural Pennsylvania, early 19th century. Cy Bellman, a widowed mule breeder, reads a newspaper account of fossilized bones found in Kentucky; he vows to track down these wondrous monsters in their native habitat, which he believes lies beyond the Mississippi River. He leaves his 10-year-old daughter, Bess, in the capable but frigid care of his sister as he traces the route of Lewis and Clark, from St. Louis westward along the Missouri River, his odyssey crossing those of French traders and Indian nomads. Along the way he picks up a Shawnee teenager, Old Woman Seen From a Distance, as his guide; the boy’s name is a nod to the narrative’s telescoped quality, its shimmery mirage.
Two years slip by. Davies shifts between Cy and Bess as they veer farther apart, brushing each other only in dreams and fantasies. Bellman and Old Woman can’t speak each other’s languages, and yet they kindle a bond amid grasslands and canyons. As Bess grows toward womanhood she dances around her aunt’s hostility, the male gazes of a married librarian and a hired hand. Both father and daughter test the currents of Emersonian self-reliance, but only one emerges intact.
A Welsh native now living in northern England, Davies conjures the frontier ethos and landscape in a spare yet elegant prose. Her imagery and cadences glide beautifully into place. In the wake of tragedy, Old Woman plots his path toward Bess: “The compass the fur trader had given him he had no use for because he had the music of the river and the bright configuration of the stars, but he carried it in his hand. … He liked the way the tiny needle quivered beneath the clear covering, like his own heart when he was out stalking or waiting with a hook for a fish to bite.”
Moments such as this one recall the assured, poetic lines of Michael Ondaatje; and like that Canadian writer, Davies deftly exposes her characters’ magical thinking, how we’re all too eager to sacrifice our most intimate relationships in pursuit of personal Manifest Destinies. From a distance, “West” looks like a slim fable; but a closer view reveals a peculiarly American self-delusion, opening up like a vast prairie. Davies is an audaciously talented writer to watch.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Carys Davies.
Publisher: Scribner, 149 pages, $22.