Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Book Review: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

If your father is Welsh, your mother Chinese-Malay and you were brought up mainly in England, your mind will probably dwell frequently on identity and belonging. So it is, I imagine, with Peter Ho Davies, whose novel The Welsh Girl turns on precisely those themes.

It's 1944, not long after D-Day. Young Esther lives with her widowed father on a sheep farm near a remote village in North Wales, where Welsh is everyone's first language and outsiders are distrusted, especially if they're English. She works part-time in the village pub where she meets English people for the first time, including soldiers, with one of whom she has a brief, rather brutal encounter before he's shipped off elsewhere. Soon after, a group of German prisoners of war is brought to a nearby disused holiday camp and Esther finds herself befriending Karsten, a German soldier full of alienating guilt at having surrendered his men on D-Day. How can he explain this in letters to his proud mother in Germany? Their relationship, mainly conducted through the camp's wire fence, is the main thread of the novel and is in touching contrast to her one-night stand with the English soldier, although Karsten is technically the enemy. Exposure first to the English, then to Germans, creates tension with her nationalistic father who (deliberately?) stumbles over his English, and makes Esther think about her own Welsh identity and what it means in the wider world.

The story of Esther and Karsten is bracketed by another: Rotheram, a British intelligence officer whose German-Jewish family fled to England when he was a child, is sent to North Wales to question Rudolf Hess in order to help determine whether he's sane enough to stand trial for Nazi war crimes. Obviously, Rotheram (I used to be a German, but now I'm just a Jew) is also wrestling with problems of belonging and identity. And so, rather more obliquely, is Hess.

If all this sounds rather contrived and message-driven, I didn't find it so. Peter Ho Davies has given us flesh-and-blood characters, not ciphers. Even minor characters like Harry the radio comedian, Jim the evacuee child and the mother of the Welsh lad who loves Esther are full of life. And if, unlike these let-it-all-hang-out times of ours, they seem unengagingly restrained in their emotions, that's surely authentic - people were like that in those days, which makes the story all the more moving.

And if the novel as a whole is understated and the story slow to take off, this is all to the good: we get to know the characters in their settings much as we get know the people we meet in real life, and for this reader, at any rate, they and their dilemmas stay in the mind long after the novel is finished.

Here's a perceptive article from The Observer on Peter Ho Davies and his work. It's particularly good on the historical background to The Welsh Girl and how its themes connect with the author's own life and background.

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