Carys Davies and Colm Tóibín

March is the month for both #IrelandReadingMonth21 hosted by Cathy@746Books and #WalesReadathon21 hosted by Paula@BookJotter. This was a good chance to get a couple of books read that have been on my list for a while.

West by Carys Davies

Cy Bellman–a widowed mule breeder–seems to be a quiet, gentle man who has great affection for his daughter. So it’s sad when, one day, he decides to travel west in search of the giant animals whose bones were discovered in Kentucky. He is convinced he will be the first to find one, imagining himself coming home again with his head held high. He leaves 10-year-old Bess, for an estimated two years, at home with his sister.

The giant beasts drifted across his mind like the vast creature-like clouds he saw when he stood in the yard behind the house and tipped his head up to the sky. When he closed his eyes, they moved behind the lids in the darkness, slowly, silently, as if through water–they walked and they drifted, pictures continually blooming in his imagination and then vanishing into the blackness beyond it, where he could not grasp them, the only thing left in his head the thought of them being alive and perambulating out there in the west beyond the United States in some kind of wilderness of rivers and trees and plains and mountains and there to behold with your own two eyes if you could just get yourself out there and find them.

The story alternates between Cy’s travels west and Bess’s lonely time at home waiting for her father’s return.

In her opinion he looked grand and purposeful and brave. In her opinion he looked intelligent and romantic and adventurous. He looked like someone with a mission that made him different from other people, and for as long as he was gone she would hold this picture of him in her mind: up there on his horse with his bags and his bundles and his weapons–up there in his long coat and his stovepipe hat, heading off into the west.

True to his word, Cy wrote his daughter many letters, and sent them on their way whenever he came across anyone going back east. He remained content and hopeful; so content and hopeful as to appear to the reader somewhat foolish and naive.

In the meantime, at home, Cy’s neighbour Elmer is making his own plans.

It becomes his ambition, his one goal. He begins to plot how he will achieve it, feeling everyday that, with his helpfulness in the yard, his patience with the mules, his appreciation of the aunt’s cooking, his acceptance into their midst, he is coming closer, each friendly favor a new stone making a path along a river that he is almost across; that he is just waiting now for his chance to make it happen.

And Elmer isn’t the only one who feels that Bess has been left wide open since her father left.

She becomes fearful, skittish. The world is harder to enjoy; she feels anxious and afraid. She wishes her father would come home and that her mother had not died.

I thought I would enjoy the father’s journey most, but in the end I preferred reading about Bess and the challenges she has while her father is away–her stern aunt, her reluctance to make friends, the unwanted attention she receives, the longing she feels for her parents and her defensiveness she feels for her father against accusations of his foolishness–and how it all comes together at the end, through the true hero of the story, Old Woman From a Distance.

Good lines…

Summer then, with swarms of midges and biting flies and mosquitoes and hard, baked ground that was like a giant’s bed of nails, hammered into fist-sized lumps by the feet of a million buffalo.

Winter, and long days when they scoured the landscape till nightfall for something to eat, no living things growing on the shrubs or the trees, when they ate bark and roots and sometimes a bullfrog dug out by the boy from the frozen mud.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

You don’t have to be interested in theology to wonder about the story of Mary and Jesus. Surely, most of us have wondered at some time about what really happened back then. Here, Toibin gives us a possibility to ponder.

I did not think that the cursed shadow of what had happened would ever lift. It came like something in my heart that pumped darkness through me at the same rate as it pumped blood. Or it was my companion, my strange friend who woke me in the night and again in the morning and who stayed close all day. It was a heaviness in me that often became a weight which I could not carry. It eased sometimes but it never lifted.

The story is told by Mary in her old age–still under the “protection” of two of her son’s followers–looking back on the days of Jesus’s popularity and death. Mary’s protection seemed more a way for them to keep an eye on her so they could question her as they wrote, while claiming to Mary that their stories were going to “change the world.”

I had never heard anyone talk about the future until then unless it was tomorrow they spoke of or a feast they attended each year. But not some time to come in which all would be different and all would be better. Such an idea swept through villages like a dry hot wind at that time, and it carried away anyone who was any use, and it carried away my son…

Mary didn’t seem to understand her son’s popularity and what it all meant. She certainly had trouble deciphering the “maze of riddles” spoken by the disciples; about sin and redemption and the Son of God.

No question asked, I knew, would elicit a straight answer. I was back in the world of fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical now and almost out of breath with excitement even before they spoke.

I thought the death scene particularly well done. In Sunday School, I was led to believe that Jesus bravely accepts his fate – they made it sound as though he was peaceful about it, like he was able to ignore the pain somehow. This account makes it clear how painful it would have been. It also explores questions of loyalty and the instinct to survive.

For the most part I found this a satisfying read, but I had questions about Lazarus’ resurrection that I thought were going to be addressed but they never were. Or maybe I just missed it. In any case, I’d recommend it to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting – after all, it’s only 104 pages.

This is the kind of story that sparks my interest and imagination, but can also be frustrating if I think too much about it. Because how can we ever know for sure what happened? And I want to know.

Good lines…

Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.

I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty, but it is foolishness that I have noticed first.

… this great disturbance in the world made its way like creeping mist or dampness into the two or three rooms I inhabited.

Have you read anything Irish or Welsh lately?

21 thoughts on “Carys Davies and Colm Tóibín

  1. buriedinprint says:

    Had you read Toibin before, when you watched the Alistair MacLeod film? When I saw that you’d bought TofM in your stack recently, I thought about how much he loved MacLeod’s stories too. I keep meaning to read more of Toibin, but I think I’ve only read a few stories (not in collections, just in magazines here and there).

    • Naomi says:

      This was my first time reading Toibin, but I have also been meaning to read him for a while. I imagined I’d start with one of his longer novels, but then I saw this at the used book store and grabbed it. It was the perfect length to fit in this month! As Cathy knows, I read Reservoir 13 thinking McGregor was Irish and then realized he wasn’t, so had to scramble for another (shorter) option. Anyway, it worked out perfectly, because both books were excellent! 🙂

  2. annelogan17 says:

    The Testament of Mary sounds like a really good read. I’d love to know what really happened, and the idea that Jesus just took the pain of crucifiction quietly is pretty crazy. Of course the story sounds better that way, but to truly know how Mary felt would be helpful…

    • Naomi says:

      I think you’d like it! Especially if you’re interested in exploring the different possibilities and not resolute in your beliefs (if you have any beliefs in that area at all, that is).
      I guess it makes sense that the gore of it all is glossed over for kids… the emphasis was more on the resurrection. I mean, Magic!! 🙂

  3. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    Both of these sound like fascinating reads – the sort I would have avoided when younger but find intriguing nowadays! One book by an Irish author I enjoyed some years ago is Ireland by Frank Delaney. Not very subtle haha but there it is.

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