It took me over a month to read "The Welsh Girl" - and I'm not sure why. I know I am in the minority in my lukewarm reception of this book (please see "Long-listed for Man Booker Prize"). It's certainly not as if the characters were not well drawn, the time and place carefully crafted, the story less than compelling...and yet...and yet.
I suppose the best way to describe my hesitation with this book is that I always felt as arms length. Even when inside the thoughts and hearts of Esther, Karsten and Rotherham...I felt as if the essence of what they were thinking and feeling were closed off. I didn't FEEL their feelings, didn't SEE what they were seeing...
That being said, it is undeniable that this novel, set during World War II in North Wales, is beautifully crafted. The descriptions of time and place were excellent; the characters seem ones transported in time for the reader to meet.
There were parts that I couldn't help but read twice - parts that broke through the fourth wall for me.
"...his progress reminds Esther of how the dogs part a flock. Sheepish, she thinks. The villagers feel sheepish. The word appears before her in her own flowing copperplate. She's been having these spells lately when words, English words, seem newly coined, as if they're speaking to her alone, as if she's seeing the meanings behind them. She's conscious of her lips, her tongue, forming them."
And there are moments when I can see the village so clearly that I feel I am truly there. "Within the fence, the faces of the Germans and MPs turn up to the slope to where the villagers stand. Hands are angled to shield eyes against the sun; arms are lifted, pointing. Esther finds herself blushing, embarrassed to be caught staring, but even as she turns away, Mott, at her feet, lifts his head and offers a long howl of replay to the snapping dogs below."
I've gone over and over that paragraph and I can't put my finger on it...but something about those words take me there - I can feel the sun on my face, making me squint...I can see the prisoners pointing up, I can hear the dog and I can smell grass and animals nearby.
And there are some small moments when the thin wall cracks and I can feel the emotions of the characters.
"He was serious, Karsten saw, the answer deeply important to him. For just a moment, he wanted to cry yes! and have done with it. For just a moment, he could feel the cool relief of admitting it, even to this child. He was almost certain the boy would rather have his friend alive and a coward than brave and dead. All he had to do was say it. Yet something inside him recoiled. Some pride, some recollection of those dreadful steps down the passage out of the bunker."
There I am able to feel those tightly wound emotions straining to explode - I can feel the pulse of the story. And once more with Esther:
"Esther looks at her through her tears and nods slowly. She does have hope, she realizes. All this time she's thought Rhys dead, and now she hopes, prays, that he is."
Maybe because these characters, in the short period of time when their lives intersect, live in circumstances where they cannot give reign to their emotions, cannot let their guard down for even a moment - maybe that is the distance I feel from their story.
This tale of bravery and defeat, of cowardice and unacknowledged heroism, is one I wanted to appreciate more. But maybe, this is one of those books where when read again, at a different point in my life, will have a greater impact.