The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
The Welsh Girl was book of the month in by my book club. Peter Ho Davies was born in Britain in 1966 to Welsh and Chinese parents, Davies now makes his home in the USA. He is now on the faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Davies is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
It is Peter Ho Davies’s first novel, “The Welsh Girl“. The story is set in 1944, as World War II grinds through its final year. But of course his characters don’t know that they are within sight of the finishing-post. Instead, they inhabit the confusions of the present tense. Rotheram, a German Jewish refugee, came to Britain in 1936 and now works as a translator for Political Intelligence. Seventeen-year-old Esther, daughter of a Welsh shepherd, lives in a remote village where war impinges in the form of evacuees and English sappers building a prisoner-of-war camp. Karsten, a captured German naval infantryman, will become one of the first prisoners in the new camp.
The Welsh Girl is preoccupied with ideas of identity, belonging and alienation. Ho Davies explores the ways in which war ruptures the relationship between a human being and the place (or country) that is called home. Some forms of belonging are obvious as the novel begins to weave its strands. The sheep on the Welsh hills know their territory and don’t stray from it. This sense of belonging – cynefin – is passed on down the female line, from the ewes to the ewe-lambs, because the ram lambs are sent for slaughter. If the herd loses contact with its territory, it cannot thrive.
This hard fact becomes a metaphor throughout the novel. It may be over-used, but it remains potent. Esther, who has lost her mother and is a little lost within her own life, will eventually give birth to an identity which allows her to reconnect, in her own way, with home and origins.
Language is a key marker of belonging in this fictional village. Certain thoughts and ideas belong within Welsh, resisting translation because they embody what is specific to that culture. Ho Davies describes his fictional setting as “a nationalist village, passionately so. It’s what holds the place together, like a cracked and glued china teapot.” However his treatment of the very complex and controversial subject of Welsh nationalist attitudes to the war is somewhat bland. Characters take an overview of their situation, and describe their feelings and thoughts to themselves in a way which robs these of life. Esther, for example, hears a speech by Churchill, revealing the invasion of France, and reflects that “most of the locals are as filled with excitement as she is, even if they’re reluctant to admit it.” It seems very unlikely that a girl of 17 would think of the friends and family with whom she’s grown up as “the locals”.
Ho Davies is much more assured in his handling of characters who are uprooted. Rotheram, for example, has gone through a long battle over both his Germanness and his Jewishness. It is only towards the end of the novel that his Jewishness becomes real to him, because he has made his own bridge between what other people say he is, and where he feels he can belong. Karsten, like all the other prisoners, is stripped of the identity – or sustaining fantasy – supplied by Nazism. Already, however, a different fantasy is supplanting it: the prisoners begin to consider themselves both innocent and victimised, subtly entitled to resentment and furious when they are confronted with film of the liberation of Belsen. Esther, coerced into sex by her English sapper boyfriend, has to lie about what really happened for the rest of her life. Within this lie, the novel seems to argue that Esther finds a deeper truth which links her to her dead mother, and enables her to claim back her own territory.
The Welsh Girl handles its complex thematic structure with secure craft, intelligence and sense of direction. The introduction of a major historical figure into this fictional world may shake the scenery, but the novel recovers.
Rotheram is the most subtly-drawn and interesting character in the book. This may be because Ho Davies has not decided the outcome of his story as firmly as he appears to have done with Esther and Karsten, but has treated Rotheram with some of the uncertainty and passion which brings a character to life. In his characterisation of Esther, there is distance.
Ho Davies has already earned a reputation as a short-story writer, but that skill may not make it easier to risk the excess, embarrassment and commitment of a book which takes its author way beyond where he expected to find himself. Nevertheless, The Welsh Girl is good enough to suggest that he may become an impressive novelist once he is into his stride. I did feel the book was a bit too long and more of an effort to get to the end than many I have read recently. However, it was worth the time I invested in it. I recommend this book.
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- Tagged: Ann Arbor, Belsen, Book Club, Britain, Chinese, Churchill, English, Esther, Guggenheim Foundation, Jewish, Karsten, National Endowment for the Arts, nationalist, novel, Peter Ho Davies, Political Intelligence, refugee, Rotherham, sheep, shepherd, The Welsh Girl, University of Michigan, USA, Welsh, World War II