This is a perfect gem of a novel. Like some of the very best American tales (I guess I’m thinking Of Mice and Men here) less is certainly more, and Davies has packed a beautifully-told tale in 149 pages. Every sentence manages to be both spare and purposeful. Her quixotic protagonist, Cy Bellman, follows a long line of explorers setting out west to make new discoveries. Like Lewis and Clark before him, Bellman is heading out into the unknown – this time Bellman believes he’s going to find giant animals roaming in the as-yet uncharted lands west of the Mississippi. Bellman leaves behind a young daughter, Bess, in the care of his sister, a religious and dour woman who is unconvinced by her brother’s quest for mysterious creatures. Bess herself believes in her father and his ideas, regardless of how hard his decision to leave makes her life.
‘”Look you long and hard, Bess, at the departing figure of your father,” said her aunt Julie from the porch in a loud voice like a proclamation.
“Regard him, Bess, 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 amongst the lost and the mad.
For a long time Bess stood, ignoring the words of her aunt Julie, watching her father ride away.
In her opinion he did not resemble any kind of fool.’
Like all good quest narratives, Bellman’s success is uncertain, but the reader is left in little doubt about the vulnerability of his daughter, left behind in a rural settlement where young girls are both limited in their options and also a source of fascination for men in a world of few available females. Help for both Bellman and his daughter comes from unexpected quarters but, despite the optimism she paints into the character of Bellman, Davies doesn’t promise her readers an automatically happy conclusion. Having said that, the ending itself is actually quite marvellous.
I read this in two hours flat, completely caught up in Bellman’s exploration and in the parallel narrative of his daughter. This is a brilliant debut novel which fully deserves all the acclaim it’s received so far. Another one for the Top Ten this year, without a doubt!