BookBrowse Reviews The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

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The Welsh Girl

by Peter Ho Davies

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2007, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2008, 352 pages

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An engrossing wartime love story set in the stunning landscape of North Wales during the final, harrowing months of World War II

Peter Ho Davies's short stories have appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers and have been widely anthologized. His first collection of stories was The Ugliest House in the World (1998), which contains tales set in Malaysia, South Africa and Patagonia. It won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second collection, Equal Love, was published in 2000.

He was inspired to write The Welsh Girl by one of his earliest memories of the small brass trinkets he used to play with when staying at his grandmother's house in North Wales, which she told him had been made from old shell casings by German prisoners of war held in camps in Snowdonia (the area local to The Welsh Girl, named after the highest mountain in Wales). He was fascinated at how these objects had passed from hand to hand to reach his.

As the son of a Welsh father and Chinese mother, raised in England, who spent his summers in Wales and now lives in the USA (where he directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan), Peter Ho Davies's initial concern was that he wasn't "Welsh enough" to write this story; but in fact this doubt became the impetus to writing it - to explore what it means to be Welsh and to explore the wider concept of nationalism in its varied forms.

The setting is North Wales, just after the Normandy landings of 1944. A crew of English sappers (regarded by the nationalist-orientated locals as virtual invaders themselves) are building a secret camp, which brings a certain pride to the local people. However, pride turns to national insult when it transpires that the camp is for German prisoners of war.

The primary story is told from the point of view of 17-year-old Esther, a local farm girl who has never been outside the immediate vicinity of the area, and Karsten, one of the German prisoners, who speaks passable English because he grew up helping his mother run their small inn.

A secondary story, effectively a short story in its own right, tops and tails this central tale. Rotheram, a German Jew who has worked as an interrogator for the British since early in the war, is in Wales to interview Rudolf Hess*. Rotheram's sense of estrangement is overwhelming. In the first instance he is a self-exiled German Jew who feels guilt at having left while others stayed; secondly, despite being fluent in English and able to move freely between the British officers and the German prisoners (sometimes passing himself off as a prisoner), he feels at home in neither camp.

Rotheram's dislocation contrasts against the provincial isolationism of the Welsh villagers to limn the two extremes of nationalism - the effectively clawless nationalism of the local Welsh, usually limited to grumblings in the pub, and the extreme aggression of German National Socialism.

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 decide who they are more aggrieved with, the English or the Germans. A secondary theme is that of cowardice and shame - from the shame of an unwanted pregnancy through to the corporate shame of an entire prisoner of war camp believing themselves cowards for having been captured.

*Hess flew himself to Scotland in 1941 apparently with the intent of negotiating peace. Hitler dismissed him as insane, and Churchill, having concluded that Hess was acting in isolation, had him locked up for the duration of the war in various secret locations in Wales. He was later tried at Nuremburg. For a brief bio of Hess see historyplace.com.

Interesting Link: Short stories by Peter Ho Davis at Ploughshares.

This review was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the January 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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