The Welsh Girl: A Novel Hardcover – Feb 12 2007
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Following two widely praised short-story collections, Equal Love and The Ugliest House in the World, Peter Ho Davies's first novel, The Welsh Girl, deserves to be equally well received. It carefully examines two great themes, dislocation and cowardice, through the stories of a WWII POW camp built by the British in the remote mountains of northern Wales and Esther, the 17-year-old Welsh girl at the heart of the story. The POW camp, filled with Germans, is yet another national insult, as far as the Welsh are concerned, only one of many instances of prejudice between and among the novel's characters: Welshman against Brit and vice versa, Brits and Welshmen against Germans, Germans against Jews. Some of these enmities are age-old antagonisms; others are newly-minted political killing machines.
Davies introduces a Welsh concept--cynefin--for which there is no English equivalent. It means a certain knowledge and sense of place that is passed down the matrilineal line in a flock of sheep. They always know where they belong and never leave their own turf. It is a perfect metaphor for much of what takes place in this carefully plotted story, and for the displacement felt by many of the characters. Esther longs to escape her village, yet is devoted to the flock and to her father. She meets Colin, an English soldier, in the pub where she works. He is a rough sort and things end very badly between them.
Another theme visited again and again is the concept of cowardice. Is it cowardly to save one's life and the lives of others by surrendering to the enemy? Is death the price that must be paid to be considered brave? The German POWs debate this endlessly, especially Karsten, an intelligent, sensitive soldier who did surrender himself and his men when it was clear that all was lost. When he and Esther find one another under impossible circumstances, Davies renders their relationship perfectly: it is star-crossed, but desperately important to both of them, setting them both "free" in the truest sense of the word. The Welsh Girl is a beautifully told story of love, war, and the accommodations we make in the midst of both. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Esther, a WWII-era Welsh barmaid, finds her father—a fiercely nationalistic, anti-English shepherd—provincial; she daydreams that she'll elope to London with her secret sweetheart, an English soldier. In short order, Esther is raped by her boyfriend, and her Welsh village is turned into a dumping ground for German prisoners. Meanwhile, Karsten, a German POW who is mortified that he'd ordered his men to surrender, believes that only by escaping can he find redemption. Davies (Equal Love) uses the familiar tensions of WWII Britain to nice ensemble effect: among the more nuanced secondary characters is a British captain who is the son of a German-Jewish WWI hero—the man's father had always considered himself a Lutheran until the Nazi ascension forced him to flee Germany. As Esther begins to question her own allegiances, Karsten comes into her orbit. What makes this first novel by an award-winning short-storyteller an intriguing read isn't the plot—which doesn't quite go anywhere—but the beautifully realized characters, who learn that life is a jumble of difficult compromises best confronted with eyes wide open. (Feb. 12)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
He will carry you along through each of these topics in an informed manner and created real life conflicts that will set the mind projecting possible conflicting outcomes to be resolved – all story tellers’ skills – to an interesting end. If there is a flaw it may be that the Welsh girl herself never seems to form up as intended; perhaps the nature of being that young – still in process. Wales, his father’s homeland comes across well however.
Davies reaches into his maternal roots for his next novel; looking forward to that one as one more take on China.
I came away from this book feeling like I spent a holiday in Wales enjoying the boisterous pub, the wooly sheep, the wild eyed farm boys, the german POWs and the Village matrons. "The Welsh Girl" was entertaining, humorous, tragic, passionate and a just a really good well rounded read.
The author, Peter Ho Davies conveys the spirit of the times in his understanding of the historic and cultural tensions between the local Welsh citizenry and the British laborers who construct and later, the British soldiers who garrison the prisoner-of-war camp.
But it is in the mind and thoughts of the protagonist, the seventeen year-old Welsh Girl that the reader will most often dwell. The narrative is largely told from her perspective as both insider and outsider to the events going on around her.
Two other narratives cross and juxtapose. One of these is the narrative of a young German prisoner-of-war, "captured," (but who has actually surrendered) to the British in the D-Day landings in France. Transported to Wales, haunted by his surrender, his seemingly unlikely intersection with the Welsh Girl becomes more predictable and then inevitable, as the narrative unfolds.
The third narrative is that of a German-Jewish translator/interrogator and plant/spy. He is a refugee from Nazi Germany who struggles with his identity which he sees as alternatingly German, Jewish, anti-German, anti-Jewish and ultimately, world citizen.
The author has done his homework. He writes about events in the last year of World War II in the European theatre with confidence and clarity. The author also knows Wales and the Welsh mind. He is able to make you, the reader, feel like you are in that village pub, standing at the bar or sitting at a table, listening to the chatter, nursing your glass of ale.
If you know anything about the UK geographical divisions, or even if you have only seen photos of the picturesque countryside, you will be enthralled by this story. If you are intrigued by human stories of WWII, you will be intrigued by this story. If you have ever been misjudged in a situation, you will relate to this story.
Peter Ho Davies creates three characters : they are brought to life by circumstances and his narrative descriptions. You come to appreciate all three for who they are.
It is a page-turner to be sure - as the reader waits to discover how three unlikely people will happen upon one another in a world torn by war, prejudice, hatred, and nationalism.
Although the book has been finished for weeks now, I am still thinking on their fate....