In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

February 2019

Gleebooks Bookshop - Thursday, February 07, 2019

The two books that I read and loved over the holidays could not be more different. Carys Davies’ West is a slim novel, minute in observation and epic in its topic. In 1815, widower Cy Bellman sets out from his home in Pennsylvania to find mythically large beasts—after enormous animal bones are found in Kentucky. He is leaving his 10 year old daughter Bess behind in the care of his sceptical sister Julie, who is very clear that she finds his quest ridiculous. There are many characters in this book, but each one is memorable; Bess and her father, Julie, the lecherous town librarian, the very dubious farm hand, and most striking of all, Old Woman from a Distance, the Shawnee youth that Bellman employs as his bearer and companion. The author captures the breadth of the landscape in very few words, and the depth of the folly in even less. At times there is an incredible sense of menace, but not where you’d expect it. Cy Bellman’s journey is extremely uncomfortable but the author manages to transcend it, through language and narrative structure, she hasn’t written a punishing story, but a really curious one.

Posy Simmonds’ latest graphic novel, Cassandra Darke, is also minutely observed, and a commentary of the times we live in. The eponymous Cassandra is a disgraced art dealer, who has just been uncovered as a fraudster. She is a curmudgeonly old baggage, and completely unperturbed by her fall from grace—although currently much inconvenienced, as she has lost her income. Through the agency of a former employee, who is also a relative of sorts, she finds herself embroiled in the mayhem of a serious crime, and proves herself to be more than a match for the criminals who foolishly try to inveigle her. The author has written quite a bit of text in this book, and her illustrations are superb, extremely accurate, but imaginative, while brilliantly evoking the time and place they are set in. While always keeping a sense of humour, Posy Simmonds often has surprisingly serious events take place in her books. Two previous books, Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery were respectively based on Return of the Native, and Madame Bovary; Cassandra Darke very loosely resembles A Christmas Carol, although it’s a lot more amusing. It’s rare to meet such an unapologetically cantankerous heroine as Cassandra Darke—in fact she would be a good ally of my other favourite cranky character, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Louise

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