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Clear by Carys Davies review – in search of a shared language

Clear by Carys Davies review – in search of a shared language


In 1843, there was a significant event in the Scottish Church. For several years, there had been objections to landowners being allowed to appoint ministers of their choice to clerical positions. As a result, one-third of ministers left the established church and formed the Free Church of Scotland. This decision was based on their conscience, but it came at a cost. They were forced to give up their parishes, homes, and salaries, leaving many of them in financial hardship.

During this period, Scottish landowners were in the midst of the last stages of the Clearances, which had been ongoing for a hundred years. The goal was to remove tenants from land that their families had worked on for many generations, in order to use it for raising livestock, growing crops, or grazing sheep. However, this heartless undertaking was largely unchallenged by the church, whether it was the established church or the free church. Both promoted the belief of providence, which held that earthly events were determined by God’s plan and that suffering was a punishment for our sins. Therefore, the faithful were expected to bear their burdens and carry on.

In her third novel, Clear, Carys Davies combines two historical narratives to tell a story of an unlikely friendship. In need of money, rebellious minister John Ferguson agrees to help a landowner by traveling to the farthest part of their estate – a small, unnamed island halfway to Norway. His task is to survey the land and evict its only remaining resident, Ivar. The landowner’s agent provides John with a brief introduction to Ivar, including a few phrases in his language (as Ivar does not speak English or Scots), some basic supplies, and a gun in case Ivar becomes agitated. After a tumultuous journey on a tempestuous sea, John is dropped off on the island, with the promise that the boat will return in a month to retrieve him.

John, who is completely unsuited for his task, only lasts for one evening before slipping and tumbling off a cliff while coming back from bathing. He is found by Ivar, who is described as ghostly and radiant in the refreshing sunlight, resembling a large jellyfish. Ivar takes John to his bed and takes care of him, nourishing him and treating his injuries. He also repairs his torn clothes, creating light pink sleeves for his dark coat. With time, as John recovers, the two men develop a connection.

In 2020, Davies released The Mission House. However, at only 160 pages, Clear invites a closer comparison to her phenomenal debut novel, West. Similar to West, Clear tackles themes of yearning and belonging, loneliness and connection. But while West takes place in the vast, uncharted landscapes of America, Clear centers around a miniature setting where every rock is named and familiar. In West, the main character, Cy Bellman, never bothers to learn the language of his Shawnee guide, despite traveling together for years. In contrast, John Ferguson is determined to master Ivar’s “peculiar tongue”. He painstakingly records each word and its meaning, creating a sort of dictionary of their shared experiences. For example, words like liki, which describes the first twist of a ball of wool as it begins to take shape, and leura, which represents the unreliable silence between storms.

Clear is a testament to the formidable power of language, something that has always been clear to Davies. She is able to capture entire worlds with just a few carefully chosen words. In her previous work, The darkly funny West, she managed to encapsulate the weight of American hope and hubris in a concise and impactful manner. While Clear also displays this same economy of language, it can at times feel lacking in depth and substance, despite occasional moments of moving emotion. The character of Ivar, with his childlike curiosity and daily routines, is fleshed out with care and tenderness. However, the more serious and anxious John remains elusive, with only brief glimpses into his thoughts and feelings. This lack of insight into his inner world may lead the reader to question whether his interest in Ivar’s language is truly an awakening or a mere facade.

The challenge is made more difficult by the time limit set by Davies. John Ferguson is only given four weeks on Ivar’s island, during which he must not only recover but also form a deep and transformative friendship. This proves to not be enough time. While West’s ending was certainly fantastical, it fit perfectly within the fairytale-like nature of the book. In contrast, Clear’s final pages feel rushed and the rewards do not feel earned yet. Davies is a highly talented and empathetic writer, capable of balancing bold audacity with restraint. However, in Clear, she may have exercised too much restraint. A longer novel could have led to a deeper and more satisfying story.

Carys Davies’ novel, Clear, is being published by Granta for £12.99. To show your support for the Guardian and Observer, you can order your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Some delivery fees may apply.

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Source: theguardian.com