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The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
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Jun 26, 2007

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Recommended for: Shepherds
Read in February, 2006

Peter Ho Davies’ debut novel, The Welsh Girl, is an historical fiction set in the latter half of World War II in a remote village in Wales. The construction of a secret camp causes much excitement in the village, particularly for Esther, a young barmaid who has fallen for one of the English soldiers tasked with building the camp. The dalliance is particularly volatile because Esther’s father is a staunch Nationalist who views the English as nothing more than Anglo oppressors. Esther’s solider, Collin, promptly takes advantage of Esther and ravishes her, spilling both the secret of the German prisoner-of-war camp as well as his seed. Soon after, Esther has a secret of her own.

Auf Weidersehen Collin, enter Karsten, a dashing young blond German Navy infantryman who is as clever with his hands as he is with his tongue. Despite his fluency in English, Karsten has a rough go of it in the POW camp because he is marked with the secret shame of the capitulator—survivor’s guilt’s hateful cousin. Poor Karsten is afflicted with self-loathing not seen since Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim took a swan dive off the fantail of the Patna, leaving hundreds of passengers to drown.

As the chapters alternate between Esther and Karsten, the two characters are inexorably drawn together until the barbed wire that separates the prisoner inside the camp and the woman inside her tyrannical father’s home becomes metaphor thin. It seems a foregone conclusion that Esther and Karsten will get busy in the haymow, which they do, but after a few days hiding out in Esther’s father’s barn eating food that she prepares for him, Karsten decides to give himself up—again—and is returned to camp.

A curious wrinkle in Davies’s village narrative concerns a German-Jew named Rotheram, an officer in the English Army who is sent to Wales to interrogate Rudolf Hess, the member of Hitler’s inner circle who famously flew the coop in a Messerschmitt Bf 110 and touched down in Scotland in an ill-conceived attempt to negotiate peace with England—without Hitler’s knowledge or approval. The Fuhrer dismissed Hess as a lunatic. Hess professed amnesia and Churchill had the aviator locked up for the duration of the war in a series of safe houses in Wales.

Because so little is known about Hess’s motives, he is an excellent subject for a work of historical fiction. Pairing him with an interrogator who is conflicted about his identity and is in extreme denial about his Jewish ancestry was a masterstroke. But does the story belong in a novel about a shepherd’s daughter?

Davies has a knack for evoking the telling detail but at times he falls prey to the quick and easy characterization: the English soldier who is “glossily handsome, like the lobby card of a film star,” (25) or the bartender wounded in the Great War who walks with a limp but has “never spilled a drop.” (28) Indeed, when we first meet Esther she compares her emotions to the settling of a pint of Guinness, a sentiment that errs on the treacly side of sweet.

Nevertheless, Davies’s characters are marvelously nuanced. Each of the three major characters suffers from a severe conflict of identity. Esther must shield the identity of her baby’s father from her father and invents a relationship with the village’s only casualty to protect her child. Karsten, the son of a fallen war hero, struggles in vain to fill his father’s shoes and win his mother’s approval. Rotheram, the German-Jew, tells everyone who will listen to him that’s he’s not Jewish until the denials transcend falsehood and become farcical. Each one of these characters could carry the novel, but the hero-by-committee approach falls short.

While the organization is a bit of a muddle, by the end of the epilogue all questions have been resolved and the novel’s earlier missteps are redeemed. We even follow Hess to his cell in Spandau where he committed suicide at the age of ninety-three, a cipher
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message 1: by Beverly (last edited Aug 25, 2016 11:24AM) (new)

Beverly Wow, thanks for the review! Hiya!

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