Welsh author Carys Davies’ masterful debut novel, West, tells the story of Cy Bellman, a widowed British transplant raising his young daughter, Bess, in rural Pennsylvania in the early 19th century. When Bellman reads about the discovery of mammoth-size bones in Kentucky, he begins to feel discontented and restless. The bones captivate Bellman. He wants to see them in person and believes they belong to creatures that still roam the earth. He also needs a break from his mundane and rather depressive existence. Despite warnings and condemnation from family and neighbors, Bellman decides to head west, beyond the Mississippi River, in search of more mysterious fossils.
Davies juxtaposes Bellman’s journey with the story of Bess, whom he leaves behind in Pennsylvania. Deprived of a mother and a father, Bess faces the perils of life without stability and protection. She spends much of the story waiting for her father while attempting to avoid the nefarious attention of two local men.
While they are living two disconnected lives, Bellman’s and Bess’ stories intersect through the travels of a Shawnee youth named Old Woman from a Distance, who serves as Bellman’s guide on his western journey. Orphaned by both tribe and homeland, Old Woman from a Distance is a curious boy who is searching for his own type of contentment.
Davies’ economical approach, in the form of short chapters and concise prose, is incredibly effective. She offers just enough narrative for the reader to connect with characters and engage with the plot. But from chapter to chapter, Davies leaves much unsaid, which in turn leaves the reader feeling as vulnerable and full of wonder as the book’s main characters.
West is an engrossing work of historical fiction grappling with themes of vulnerability, longing and hope that transcend all contexts.