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A Quixotic Hunt for Mammoth Creatures That Ends in Tragedy

Extreme coincidence can work sometimes in Davies’s short stories, to highlight irony, but the mountain of impossible coincidence at the end of “West” is staggering. One of the characters rides across much of the country on horseback to arrive at the precise moments needed to kill the only two people who should be killed, though he’s never met or heard of them before — and he also suddenly realizes that this is where he’s from, the place where his sister was raped and killed. His impossible weapon is a knitting needle with a knob on one end, which would catch on the bow and be flung to the side. But here it takes perfect flight. The needle is instantly recognized, despite being just a bloody point sticking out of someone’s head, and the victim was not distracted at all by a galloping horse arriving and didn’t turn to look.

The problem is that there’s no drama possible in “West” because the two main characters, Bellman and Bess, spend only four pages together at the beginning and have no communication after that. The minor characters are distant and uncommunicative, and don’t provide any drama, either. No character can push at another to reveal who they are. So the substitute is action: suffering and illness on Bellman’s journey, narrated so quickly it cannot be felt; the threat of rape for Bess; and racist affronts to Old Woman From a Distance, who is cheated and has his hand broken. Bellman’s quest was only an idea, never supported in a psychologically realistic and believable way; Old Woman remains a simple character, despite Davies’s efforts otherwise; and what we feel for Bess is melodrama — a child abandoned, a young woman unprotected. We have to care about that because we always care about that, no matter who it is.

“West” is too short and undeveloped to be a novel. And although it has the length, lovely compressed language and fast pacing of a novella, it lacks the form’s dramatic focus and intensity, the unity of dramatic action. Davies is an excellent writer whom you should read, but her strengths of surprise and coincidence don’t work in this longer narrative, and her quick skill at characterization doesn’t develop over a longer span. Because I’m a fan of Davies’s stories, I desperately wanted “West” to succeed, but it simply does not.

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