Clear by Carys Davies: A love story

Cover image for Clear by Carys DaviesIt’s been well over three years since The Mission House was published, perhaps an indication of the care and attention paid in writing Carys Davies’ latest brief, vivid novella. Clear is set in 1843 against the backdrop of two massive upheavals in Scottish history: the continuing, brutal clearance of its estates by voraciously greedy landlords and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

Outside, beyond the thick stone walls of his house, the island’s contours retreated briefly into darkness but without ever really disappearing, and soon, through the opening in the roof above the hearth, light began to fall in a slowly turning, glittering column of chaff and fish scales and wisps of floating wool.

Clergyman John Ferguson has impoverished himself and his wife by resigning his living to become a minister in the breakaway church. Mary and John married late, Mary long past envisioning a life with a companion. They’re devoted to each other, John making sure to have a likeness made of his wife so that he can carry her image should they be parted. After several futile attempts at making a living, he reluctantly accepts a lucrative offer preparing the clearance of the last man from an island its owner wishes to populate with sheep. John lands on the island, sets himself up in the landlord’s house and readies himself for a task for which he seems lamentably unprepared. The next day, Ivar finds a stranger naked and unconscious. It’s years since the landlord’s agent came to collect rent and even more since his remaining family left the island, begging him to go with them. As Ivar nurses John back to health, he begins to realise how lonely he’s been, transferring the affections for the picture of Mary he’s found in John’s belongings as they learn each other’s language. With no news of her husband, Mary makes her way to the island, not knowing what she might find.

Into her mind a picture came of this vast emptying-out – a long, grey and never-ending procession of tiny figures snaking their way like a river through the country.

Although I enjoyed and admired both West and The Mission House, Clear stands head and shoulders above both for me. Davies’ author’s note tells us that her novella grew out of her discovery of Jakob Jakobsen’s Norn dictionary, a dialect long since fallen out of use, which seems entirely fitting for a novel marked by its striking use of language. The narrative shifts between John, Ivar and Mary: Ivar’s world is tiny but rich in detail, summoned up in evocative word pictures, while Mary and John each come from urban worlds where knowledge is prized. The greed of landlords determined to squeeze the last drop of profit out of people whose lives are already austere beyond their imaginings is deftly conveyed. All this is delivered in elegantly spare prose from which gorgeous images sing out together with the occasional flash of humour. The ending isn’t what I expected at all but it’s a pleasing one which suits the pragmatic and resourceful Mary well.

Granta Books: London 9781803510408 160 pages Hardback

28 thoughts on “Clear by Carys Davies: A love story”

  1. I’m quite tempted by this, I must admit. It great to see a degree of development in West’s writing too, especially as West was such a striking novella.

      1. I loved Mission House and thought it didn’t get all the attention it deserved, so this review has me eager to read this new offering. Somehow West passed me by, but I’ll catch up with that too ASAP .

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.