Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl
When it comes to fiction I tend to have a preference that excludes novels revolving around war. No real reason – it’s just a topic that has never interested me. But, looking back at some of the novels I’ve read, it’s hard not to see that I’ve read my fair share (Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day, for example, or John Steinbeck‘s The Moon Is Down), even if the war element appears tangentially. So it seems ludicrous that I should have, despite glowing recommendations, wanted to bypass The Welsh Girl, the debut novel from Peter Ho Davies. I’m glad I didn’t.
The Welsh Girl is a universal tale told within a wartime setting and it does so with such ease that it’s hard not to be swept away at the joyous prose and warm to its memorable cast of characters. To add to this, there’s depth to be had in the novel’s exploration of love, nationality, identity, and loyalty, as it braids the lives of its three main characters until they all come together in a single strand.
Set in rural Wales in 1944, The Welsh Girl opens with Captain Rotheram, a German Jew working for British Intelligence, interviewing Rudolph Hess in an attempt to assess his sanity for trial. After a time he gets orders to go north to a village where the staunchly nationalist population haven’t taken too kindly to the English soldiers on their turf and are further enraged that there’s a prisoner of war camp being built on their doorstep:
…the sappers are still called occupiers to some. It’s half in jest, but only half. The nationalist view is that it’s an English war, imperialist, capitalist, like the Great War that Jack fought in and from which he still carries a limp (not that you’d know it to see him behind the bar; he’s never spilled a drop).
In this prisoner of war camp there’s Karsten Simmering, a German soldier with some English at his disposal, who suffers the weight of his decision to surrender, believing it cowardice and wondering whether it would have been better to die. There, through the wire fence, he befriends Jim, a young evacuee from Liverpool, their regular exchanges his one connection with the outside world.
And then there’s Esther Evans, the Welsh girl of the title. At seventeen years, she’s the interest of many a boy’s eye, notably the postmistress’s son, Rhys, who has gone off to fight and Colin, an English sapper who her staunchly nationalist father would object to. While she works at the local bar, Esther’s dreams reach beyond the Welsh valleys to the romance of the world beyond:
She has her own dreams of escape, modest ones mostly – of a spell in service in Liverpool like her mother before her, eating cream horns at Lyons Corner House on her days off – and occasionally more thrilling ones, fuelled by the pictures she sees at the Gaumontin Penygroes.
These three characters, by virtue of the war, are brought together in the tangle of wartime drama. Questions are asked: on the nature of what it means to be Welsh, British, German, or Jewish; on whether surrendering is an act of cowardice; and on whether love truly knows no barriers. And surrounding them all as Davies narrative gets to the heart of these matters, is a supporting cast that flesh, but by no means pad, the story out, given it further depth and instilling equal parts humour and pathos.
The author’s prose, while seemingly dense, is actually light to read, and has a way of capturing a scene that with a few strokes, lets you know what’s happening, what people are thinking, in addition to colouring it with wonderful observations and attention to detail:
She settles herself, and he puts his hands in the small of her back and shoves firmly to set her off, and then as she swings he touches her lightly, his fingers spread across her hips, each time she passes. ‘Go on!’ she calls, and he pushes her harder and harder, until she sees her shiny toe tops rising over the indigo silhouette of the encircling mountains. When she finally comes to a stop, the strands of dark hair that have flown loose fall back and cover her face. She tucks them away, all but one, which sticks to her cheek and throat, an inky curve. He reaches for it and traces it, and she takes his hand for a second, then pushes it away. He’s on the verge of something, but she doesn’t want him to come out with it just yet, not until it’s perfect.
With The Welsh Girl being a debut novel (after two short story anthologies), it’s a huge surprise how assured and confident the author is with his material, with his characters, and with the questions he asks of his novel. It’s no surprise that Granta in 2003, despite not having a novel to his name, labelled Davies as one of Britain’s best young novelists, a tag he has surely delivered on. And with The Welsh Girl being on the Booker longlist, further plaudits and success must surely beckon for this fantastic writer. I certainly will be looking into his previous work – one promise I won’t be welshing on.
August 13, 2007