Guy Ware on Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike

Guy Ware on Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike

Almost a decade ago, during the curious phoney war between the acceptance of my first novel and its publication, I stumbled – most likely while rummaging through the box of delights that is the Salt website – across Carys Davies’ second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike. The cover boasted a quote from Maggie Gee: “[Davies’] magical yet weirdly believable stories transport you in a breath into other lives and worlds, without a word wasted.”

It’s a review that might have put me off – with age, I’ve become increasingly allergic to the “magical”, and the claim that short stories can’t afford to waste a single word has become a creative writing truism without actually being true. Nonetheless, Gee’s comment captures – in very few words – a great deal of what’s so special about this book.

Other lives and worlds? Oh, yes – Wales, Yorkshire, Australia, the American West, Siberia: there is nowhere these stories fear to tread. But also, other times. Davies writes the very best kind of historical fiction, not by showing off a Wikipedia-worth of period technology or contemporary events (there are no koala bears in Davies’ Australia; nobody opens a newspaper to find the Gettysburg address) but transporting us through time and space with a few well-chosen, expertly placed details. Her language is not larded with dialect or archaisms, but scrubbed bare of modernity, leaving the smooth, clean bones of the characters’ thought, self-deception and performance.

Take the very first page of the very first story, a tale of domestic abuse and retaliatory murder, characteristically called ‘The Quiet’. After a brief passage describing our narrator watch a man approach her farm in a buggy that efficiently – quietly – sets us in the rural nineteenth-century, we find a single sentence paragraph: “His name was Henry Fowler and she hated it when he came.” How could we not read on? Her husband is off in town and she does not want to invite the visitor in, but he is a neighbour and we know she must, again. We know, too, that this time something will happen. And it does, oh it does – quietly, utterly unpredictably, but with devastating power.

The tone is set for the rest of the collection. Isolation, grief, loneliness, cruelty, corruption, brutality, violence, torture, murder and even cannibalism are all portrayed so precisely, so without sensationalism, as to be completely credible; but, then, so too are desire, glee, humour, love, friendship, joy and – of course – redemption. Above all, for the reader, there’s the excitement of finding oneself in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing, who plays us like a fiddle, but rewards us with the sense that we might enlarge our own capacities just by keeping up with her.

While never mechanical, Davies’ plots are engineered as precisely as her prose. When the two come together in a perfect resolution, the effect can be astonishing. The final sentence of ‘Nothing Like My Nightmare’, for example – a half-page, single-paragraph story in which parental anxiety spins hyperbolically out of control, but still falls short of the casual, purposeless cruelty of the universe – is both a thing of great beauty and a punch in the gut.

As for the title story, I defy anyone finally to discover the nature of Galen Pike’s redemption without being bowled over by its gruesome, comic, outlandish but – yes – utterly believable rightness. Personally, I hooted aloud with glee – a reaction I otherwise reserve for the better bits of P.G. Wodehouse. Which is definitely a kind of magic: perhaps that’s what Gee meant all along?

The book went on to win a slew of prizes, and Davies to write short, spare, very powerful historical novels. They’re excellent, too. But it’s Galen Pike I return to – and have taught – again and again.


Guy Ware is a critically-acclaimed novelist and short story writer. His work has been listed for many awards, including the Frank O’Connor International, Edge Hill and London Short Story Prize, which he won in 2018. Our Island Story is his fifth novel. Guy was born in Northampton, grew up in the Fens and lives in southeast London.

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