Books

West, Carys Davies: Dancing Bears, Witold Szablowski

Jane Graham looks at two books which consider the continuing impact of old myths and practices on vulnerable people.

Following on from the thoughtful and perceptive short stories which won her a trunkful of prestigious awards, Welsh writer Carys Davies’ debut novel is much anticipated. Thankfully, West, an affecting tale of yearning, loyalty and faith, does not disappoint. 

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Davies’ story revolves around American settler Cy Bellman, a young widower and sole carer for his 10 year old daughter Bess. He works diligently on their Pennsylvania farm, but when he reads  that huge bones of unidentified creatures have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he is seized by a ‘childlike wonderment’. He decides to put the farm and his motherless daughter under the guardianship of his disapproving sister, and make his way to the place where the magnificent monsters of his imagination might roam for real. 

The strongest aspect of the novel is its tender handling of Bess’ journey towards adolescence, as the predators circle and her natural protector chases rainbows a thousand miles away

The village Bellman leaves behind are united in their disdain for his ‘lunatic adventure.’ His devoted daughter fully expects him to return a hero, his incredible discoveries lauded across the country. As he wanders further into an increasingly hostile environment, accompanied by a teenage Shawnee guide with the rather wonderful name of Old Woman at a Distance, seasons come, go, and take their toll. Only Bess truly believes her father will ever come home.

With the sparse, economical language of a fable (a common feature of the current spate of ‘quest’ novels) Davies raises questions about what motivates these treasure hunts across unknown territories, whose final reward or sense of conquering marks them as superior to mere trips. How intoxicating, the notion of fate, and the courageous explorer who embraces his!

But if there is potential for a miracle in Bellman’s life, is he looking in the right place? It’s a question as old as time, older even than Moby Dick (Pixar address it beautifully in almost all of their best films), but Davies brings real pathos and near nobility to the grieving Bellman’s attempt to prove that there is always the chance of something beyond ‘Camp Disappointment’, a hidden pot of gold to enhance the ‘mystery of the Earth.’

The development of Bellman’s self-knowledge is beautifully handled, a powerful and painful read. So too is Davies’ careful portrait of the maturing Shawnee boy on whom he becomes dependent. But the strongest aspect of the novel is its tender handling of Bess’ journey towards adolescence, as the predators circle and her natural protector chases rainbows a thousand miles away. Driven by her belief in her brace, visionary father, and her creeping hope that he is secretly off to rescue her mother from ‘the other realm’ she disappeared into, Bess makes a touching, vulnerable figure to root for in this sure-footed and memorable debut novel.

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As a metaphor for the complexity of feelings in nations suddenly and shockingly liberated from authoritarianism, the dancing bear is inspired. In his eye-opening Dancing Bears, award-winning Polish journalist Witold Szablowski travels around Eastern Europe, Greece and Cuba to meet a series of men and women struggling with their new freedoms, including the women who take care of Uncle Joe’s childhood Home in Georgia; the Ukrainian priest who regards the West and its progressive, half-empty churches as evil; and the Bulgarian families who cherish memories of bringing up performing bears alongside their children. The bears’ tours across Eastern Europe drew big crowds until the fall of Communism saw them released in the early 2000s. The image of them still leaping onto their hind legs to dance when they see a human being is poignant indeed.

West, Carys Davies (Granta, £12.99)

Dancing Bears, Witold Szablowski (Penguin, from £12.29)

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