Summary and book reviews of The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl

By Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2007,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2008,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

From the acclaimed writer Peter Ho Davies comes an engrossing wartime love story set in the stunning landscape of North Wales during the final, harrowing months of World War II.

Young Esther Evans has lived her whole life within the confines of her remote mountain village. The daughter of a fiercely nationalistic sheep farmer, Esther yearns for a taste of the wider world that reaches her only through broadcasts on the BBC. Then, in the wake of D-day, the world comes to her in the form of a German POW camp set up on the outskirts of Esther's village.

The arrival of the Germans in the camp is a source of intense curiosity in the local pub, where Esther pulls pints for both her neighbors and the unwelcome British guards. One summer evening she follows a group of schoolboys to the camp boundary. As the boys heckle the prisoners across the barbed wire fence, one soldier seems to stand apart. He is Karsten Simmering, a German corporal, only eighteen, a young man of tormented conscience struggling to maintain his honor and humanity. To Esther's astonishment, Karsten calls out to her.

These two young people from worlds apart will be drawn into a perilous romance that calls into personal question the meaning of love, family, loyalty, and national identity. The consequences of their relationship resonate through the lives of a vividly imagined cast of characters: the drunken BBC comedian who befriends Esther, Esther's stubborn father, and the resentful young British "evacuee" who lives on the farm -- even the German-Jewish interrogator investigating the most notorious German prisoner in Wales, Rudolf Hess.

Peter Ho Davies has been hailed for his "all-encompassing empathy that is without borders" (Elle). That trancendent compassion shines through The Welsh Girl, a novel that is both thought-provoking and emotionally enthralling.

Prologue: September 1944

OUTSIDE, THE TECHNICOLOR sunset is giving way to the silvery sweep of searchlights over distant Cardiff as a hand tugs the blackout curtain across the sky. There’s a scraping of chairs, then the snap of a switch as the projector starts up. The room fills with the sharp chemical smell of acetate, the ionized stink of scorched dust.

“Lights,” Rotheram calls, and the lamps are extinguished. On the makeshift screen — a bed sheet tacked to the wall, ironed creases still visible — an image blooms, blurred at first, then twisted into focus. Clouds. Wispy, cotton-wool clouds slide across the screen, and then the camera dips beneath them, and there’s the city, spread out like a map. The screen fills with gothic script, Triumph des Willens, and beneath it in shaky subtitles, Triumph of the Will.

The watching men flicker in the reflected light. They’re seated in a rough semicircle, a handful of dining chairs ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of The Welsh Girl for every reader.

  1. The concept of cynefin is essential to the life and livelihood of shepherds such as Esther's father. If a flock loses connection with its territory, it will not survive. How does the metaphor weave its way through the novel?
  2. The three main characters in The Welsh Girl each have some fluency in a second language. What other qualities do Esther, Karsten, and Rotheram have in common? How does their bilingualism shape each of their fates?
  3. Esther's hometown is described as "a nationalist village, passionately so. It's what holds the place together, like a ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

The Welsh Girl portrays the lives of ordinary people with empathy and insight via a simple plot that leaves ample room to explore its powerful themes. The first of which are the related concepts of nationalism, prejudice and dislocation. The sheep are likely the happiest characters in the book because they are bound by cynefin, a word that apparently has no English equivalent but means a sense of place. From one generation to the next, the sheep know the boundaries of their own land and never stray. Not so the humans. Esther longs to escape the village, but feels a loyalty to the flock and her father; Rotheram is caught between two worlds; Karsten is an outcast from his fellow soldiers; and most of the locals that we meet cannot work out who they are most aggrieved with, the English or the Germans.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Los Angeles Times - Jim Ruland

Because so little is known about Hess' motives, he is an excellent subject for a work of historical fiction. Pairing him with an interrogator conflicted about his own identity and in denial about his Jewish ancestry is a masterstroke ..... If the novel's organization is a bit of a muddle, by the end of the epilogue, all questions have been resolved and the earlier missteps redeemed.

Chicago Tribune - Alan Cheuse

Though I would have enjoyed spending a bit more time with the troubled Rotheram rather than the appealing and desirous Esther, I think most readers will find both characters quite compelling, drawn as they are against a carefully and successfully depicted historical moment, when England was fighting for its life, Germany was fast realizing its Nazi life was over, and the Welsh, in their remote quarter of the British Isles, were fast recognizing just how little of a self-enclosed island on the land they were.

The New York Times - Jennifer Egan

Davies’s achievement is significant: like good social history, The Welsh Girl invites us to question history’s master narratives, which have a way of wiping out the contradictions and complications of real life, much like the propaganda films Karsten is forced to watch in the P.O.W. camp.

The New York Times - Jennifer Egan

Davies’s achievement is significant: like good social history, The Welsh Girl invites us to question history’s master narratives, which have a way of wiping out the contradictions and complications of real life, much like the propaganda films Karsten is forced to watch in the P.O.W. camp.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Library Journal

The characters are heartfelt and real and events vividly and memorably described. Recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

[A] rich, moving explication of the ambiguities of duty and sacrifice, courage and perseverance. Not quite The English Patient, but a credible dramatization of a quality too seldom encountered in contemporary fiction: Nobility.

Booklist - Michele Leber

Starred Review. This first novel by Davies, author of two highly praised short story collections, has been anticipated--and, with its wonderfully drawn characters, it has been worth the wait.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett
The Welsh Girl is a beautiful, ambitious novel . . . Emotionally resonant and perfectly rendered.

Author Blurb David Mitchell
A memorable writer of sinewy intelligence.

Author Blurb Claire Messud
Deeply compelling and utterly uncompromising . . . each sentence is a pleasure. This book is a rare gem.

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Beyond the Book

Did you know?

  • Wales, located on the south-west peninsula of Great Britain (the main island of the United Kingdom - map) is one of the four constituent nations of the UK, the others are England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Its population is about 3 million (5% of the UK).
  • The Welsh language is a Celtic language, that traces its roots back at least 2500 years; it is related to Irish, Scottish, Breton (Brittany) and Cornish (south of England).
  • Welsh speakers refer to their country as Cymru (Land of the Compatriots), Wales is from the Germanic Walha, meaning stranger.
  • The Romans invaded England and Wales in the 1st Century, but the majority of the people continued to speak Celtic.
  • The legends of Uther ...

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