The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
Peter Ho Davies is the author of two short story collections, The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love both published to wide critical acclaim. The Welsh Girl, his debut novel, seems destined to follow suit. The Welsh Girl artfully tackles the timeless topics of identity, nationalism, lies, redemption, and tackles them with a quiet punch. Set in rural northern Wales during the tail end of World War II, Davies, who has partly grown up in Wales, brilliantly evokes a sheep herding Welsh village charged to life by the English building a POW camp for surrendered Germans at the outskirts of the village. It is a construction that renders the already devoutly nationalistic Welsh villagers into a patriotic frenzy — Germany might want to take over the world, but the main enemies remain the colonial English and the encroaching importance of the English language over that of the Welsh language, one of the world’s oldest languages still in use.
In contrast to the other Welsh characters, Esther, the Welsh girl of the title, is not blindly patriotic. An intelligent teenager, the motherless Esther has gracefully adjusted to a humdrum life: she works as a bar maid at one of the local pubs, she takes care of evacuee children for the extra money, and she keeps house for her grumpy father whom she also helps with their flock of sheep. But Esther yearns to step outside her village and see the world. ‘Somewhere inside her she knows that nationalism is part and parcel of provincialism. She has her own dreams of escape, modest ones mostly….’ However, before Esther can step out into the world, the world comes to her, but in ways which leave her devastated and resorting to lies. Whether lying is dishonorable or can honorably give one a new lease on life is very much the backbone of Esther’s dilemma.
Esther’s story is interspersed between that of two others, Rotheram’s and Karsten’s. Rotheram is a German Jew who has never ‘felt’ Jewish and spends most of the novel coming to terms with whether he is who he thinks he is or what others perceive him to be. Rotheram is sent to interrogate Rudolph Hess (yes, Hitler’s Henchmen Hess who actually did spend some time interned in Wales) for war crimes, but the crisp scenes between Hess and Rotheram are as much an interrogation of Rotheram’s psyche and memory as Hess’.
The third protagonist of the novel is Corporal Karsten, an eighteen year old German POW who is plagued by the fact that he chose to surrender rather than fight to death. It is a surrender made possible because he can speak English, and English later forms the basis on which Karsten and Esther are able to engage in a relationship. The landscape of language and what it means to communicate are tenderly explored by Davies as are the nuances, the inherent codes if you will, within a language: ‘Elope, she (Esther) mouths, tasting the odd English word on her tongue. For a second she imagines she and Colin loping into the sunset, almost giggles. She’s not even sure if there’s an equivalent in Welsh, if the Welsh ever elope.’
While Rotheram and Esther are well drawn, intricate characters it is Karsten who illuminates the novel. Karsten is a Nazi and making the modern day reader care about a Nazi is no easy feat, but care about Karsten the reader does as Karsten is stricken with one moral problem after another. Should he have surrendered? Is surrender a cowardly act or a brave one? Will his mother hate him for surrendering or love him for doing whatever it takes to stay alive? When Karsten does manage to escape the camp — in a couple of sentences which exemplify Davies’ skill at knowing how much to leave to the reader’s imagination — Karsten comes to a startling conclusion regarding the distance between the acts of escaping and surrendering. Indeed the novel is peppered with epiphanies which, rather than sound corny, bring the reader closure as well as wrapping up particular themes.
Davies is particularly good at capturing moral dilemmas and the essence of small moments. Karsten leaps off the page when we see him standing behind the wire fence trying to befriend local boys by performing magic tricks, as does Esther when her recently polished shoe scuffs against an empty swimming pool, or when she takes off her borrowed swanky clothes on the return journey from Liverpool with the simple comment of why would she keep them, she has nowhere to wear them. Equally well done is the portrait of life inside this particular POW camp comprising of bored soldiers waiting for the end of war, and whittling away time by waiting for letters and writing letters, their conversations revolving round the necessity of lies to protect loved ones from painful truths.
With so much going for this lovely novel it almost seems unfair to comment on one of the few things at which Davies does not excel but here it is: for all of Davies’ finesse in evoking the ‘small’ picture, he is seldom able to get into the guts of a ‘bigger’ picture, i.e. scenes which should wrench the reader. For instance just before Karsten surrenders, one of his comrades is shot to death while another defecates at the thought of his own imminent death. However the death and consequent fear leave the reader unmoved and what makes the scene tic is once again the small physical details of Karsten’s surrender, ‘The walls were hot, and when he sucked his fingers he tasted soot’, as well as the masterful psychological details, ‘Finally he heard something from the end of the tunnel: “Come on then, if you’re coming!” And it seemed miraculous to speak the same language as men he had just been trying to kill, who might kill him any second, the words passing between them faster than bullets.’
Also, as thematically valid as Rotheram’s inclusion in the novel may be, he is not an integral part of the other main characters’ lives. That said, I liked the epilogue from Rotheram’s point of view and felt that his removal from the lives of the main players only added to the objective quality of the denouement: ‘this is life, and this is what became of these particular lives.’
The Welsh Girl is an immensely enjoyable and thought provoking read. Its strength lies in its skillful symbolism and simple yet effective dialogue, as much as in its lack of melodrama or trite political dialogue or overdone authorial intrusions on life and love and loss. As a result the pellucid prose crackles as character and plot enfold to tell a gentle tale of brief, but forever resonating, encounters between disparate people who happen to share the simple fact that they can, literally, speak a common language.