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)
The Welsh Girl can be read in so many different ways: as a story of connections that span boundaries and defy expectations. Or it can be read as a novel of identity. Peter Ho Davies write: "We have something in common, you and I. The same dilemma. Are we who we think we are, or who others judge us to be? A question of will, perhaps."
By the end of the novel, each character will wrestle with this question. The POW will learn the true meaning of "to surrender." The young English boy will find out what "courage" is all about. And the Welsh girl, at the center, will discover about cynefin -- a Welsh quality that has no English translation, but loosely translates to the flock knowing its place. And each will define himself or herself further by comparison with a presumed dead Welsh soldier, whose identity seems to be in the eye of the beholder.
I was enchanted by this novel, the first by the author of Equal Love, a fine short story collection. I'd recommend it wholeheartedly for true readers who are fascinated with love, family, loyalty, and national identity.
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.
Toward the end of WWII, the British build a POW camp in a small Welsh village. The Welsh feel insulted by this, as they do by the very presence of the English. After all, it is the English who have attempted to deny the Welsh both their language and their culture. In fact, throughout the novel, the Welsh struggle with who to view as the greater enemy - the British or the Germans. Esther is a young woman caught in the tangled loyalties of the time. Wooed by native Welsh boys of her community, she finds them too limiting; attracted to the more worldly English soldiers, she finds herself betrayed; falling in love with the German POW, she is at a loss on how to reconcile this with the reality of life after the war.
Author Davies also explores the relationship of young men to family and cultural expectations during war. Karsten, the young German POW, struggles with his surrender to the British forces. Was this a betrayal of his loyalty not only to his country but to his family's view of what a soldier should be? His father was a submarine soldier killed during WWI. What was the truth behind his father's views on war? How will his mother react to Karsten's surrender? Is it better to die for the cause? Most complex are the issues of nationality and loyalty to Rotheram. Rotheram's father, also killed during WWI, was Jewish. His mother was German Lutheran. Rotheram, who never knew his father, thought of himself as German Lutheran. At the beginning of the war, the power of the Nazi party held a strong attraction to him as it did for many young people. Rotheram felt himself betrayed on many levels - and yet ultimately felt the most free at the end of the war for the very reason that he was no longer tied to any nationality. He had been equally scorned by all. He no longer had a Fatherland or a Mother tongue.*
What role does language play in our cultural identity? Can we tell by looking at someone what their national identity is? (Karsten agonizes over the fact that Jewish people are supposed to be the "other" according to Nazi policy and to his mother's beliefs and yet he cannot "see" the difference; Rotheram assumes the Welsh bartender refuses serving him because he is Jewish, but in fact it is because the bartender "sees" him as English).
The author does justice to even the most minor characters - each add a significant voice to the themes of the novel. At some point during the reading I felt the walls of the novel expand way beyond the setting of WWII to our present day. "Fear will make you believe anything," said a character ...and yet what are the consequences of that? Today?
The biggest selling point for me wasn't the plot, which has been summarized well in the official reviews, although I found seeing WWII from a Welsh perspective quite interesting. What I found most enchanting about the novel was the symbolism, and I hope that doesn't scare anyone away, because Davies doesn't drop anvils on you, he just slides things in matter-of-factly. Initial concepts like freedom, capture, surrender, prisoner, enemy, ewe, lamb, and even the verb "welsh" are introduced in their literal sense, but by the end of the novel, you can see how Davies has added and woven layers of meaning and interpretation over time and through different character perspectives. "Cynefin", a sheep's sense of place or belonging, is something Esther tries to escape in the beginning, but is a source of comfort by the end. Rotheram, who struggles with both his personal identity and how others view him, ultimately is liberated by giving up his initial sense of home, and Karsten in the end is pulled back to his place on the mountain.
"The Welsh Girl" isn't action packed, but it is a well-written, insightful "quiet gem".