Excerpt from The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Welsh Girl

by Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 352 pages
    Jan 2008, 352 pages

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Afterwards, pacing the room once more, Hess repeated that yes, of course he recognized himself in the film, so he must accept that he had been there. Yet he had no memory of the events depicted. He touched the side of his head with his fingertips as if it were tender. “All that is black to me.”

“No memory?” Rotheram asked. “None at all? And yet you seem agitated. Disturbed.” The room was very still now without the tick and whir of the projector.

“I wouldn’t say so. Troubled, perhaps.”

“Troubled, very well. Why?”

“Troubled that I can’t remember, of course. How would you feel if you were shown and told things you had done that you had no memory of? It is as if my life has been taken from me.

That man was me, but also like an actor playing me.”

Hess sniffed. The chimney was drawing poorly. Mills raked through the coals with the poker, making them spit.

“Do you even want to remember?” Rotheram asked.

“Natürlich. A man is his memories, no? Besides, I’m told the tide has turned. Paris fallen? Germany facing defeat? I should like such memories of happier times.”

“The film made you happy, then? You enjoyed it?”

“Not happy!” Hess cried. He raised his hands in frustration, let them drop with a sigh. “But you are trying to provoke me.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then Mills said, “You must be tired.”

“Yes,” Redgrave added. “Perhaps it would be best if we conclude this evening, turn in.”

“Major,” Rotheram began, but when he looked at Redgrave ’s hangdog face, he stopped. He had been about to say that this was his interrogation, but it occurred to him suddenly that Mills was right. As far as he and the major were concerned, it was no interrogation at all. It wasn’t that they thought Rotheram couldn’t determine whether Hess was mad or not; they thought it was irrelevant. That unless Hess was raving or foaming at the mouth, he’d be put on trial. They believed the decision had already been taken. That was why they couldn’t see any point in this. It was a sham in their eyes and, worse, to continue it a cruelty.

They expect me to find him fit, Rotheram thought, because they believe I’m a Jew.

He became aware that Redgrave and Mills were staring at him, waiting.

“I suppose I am finished,” he muttered.

Only Hess was not. He was standing at the pier glass scrutinizing his own reflection. Turning his head from side to side to study his face.

He ran a hand through his lank hair, held it off his brow. “Another thing I don’t remember: growing old.” He smiled bleakly at them in the narrow mirror.

Rotheram spent a restless night in his bare cell of a room — the former servants’ quarters, he guessed, up a narrow flight of stairs at the back of the house.

It was all so unreasonable, he thought. He ’d been brought up, nominally at least, Lutheran, his mother’s faith; knew next to nothing about Judaism. In truth, he ’d always resented his grandparents, refusing to write the thank-you letters his mother asked him to send in reply to their begrudging gifts, and he ’d been secretly pleased when they’d fled to Paris, as if this proved something. Even when, two months after they’d left, his father’s pension had been stopped, Rotheram had been convinced it was simply a mistake. The Nazi bureaucrats were just fools, too dense to understand a subtle distinction like matrilineal descent, something his mother had explained to him in childhood. He was in his second year of law at the university, but when he tried to register for classes the following term, he was told he wasn’t eligible to matriculate and realized he was the fool. It made him think of an occasion years before, when, as a boy of thirteen or fourteen, he ’d asked his mother yet again why he wasn’t Jewish if his father was. Because the Jewish line runs through the mother, she ’d told him. Yes, but why? he pressed, and she explained, a little exasperated, that she supposed it was because you could only be absolutely sure who your mother was, not your father. He went away and thought about that — deeply and narrowly, as a child will — and finally came back to her and asked if she was sure his father was his father. She ’d stared at him for a long moment, then slapped him hard across the mouth. “That sure,” she said.

Copyright © 2007 by Peter Ho Davies. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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