Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Welsh Girl

Peter Ho Davies’s first novel, The Welsh Girl, offers a look at a rather unique World War II home front, the Welsh countryside. The more nationalistic residents of Wales have resented their English occupiers for generations and the onset of a World War in which they struggled for their very survival was not necessarily going to lessen that resentment even though their young men fought along side English soldiers, sailors and airmen for their common good. When a German POW camp is built in the mountains of northern Wales, something that the locals take as a personal insult, even the pubs take sides, one of them welcoming English soldiers and the other refusing to serve them no matter what.

Davies tells his story through the eyes of three very different characters. Esther, a 17-year-old Welsh farm girl and part-time barmaid who lives with her father and the English city boy they’ve taken in, finds herself attracted to the English soldiers she came to know before they were banned from the pub that employs her. To her they represent the larger world she yearns to see and she finds it difficult to consider them an enemy. Karsten is a young German POW who cannot get over the shame that he feels for having surrendered rather than fighting his enemy to the death. He speaks English well enough to communicate with the group of young boys who spend hours taunting the prisoners from the other side of the fence. Finally, there is Rotheram, a British captain of German origin, and a Jew, whose father was a German World War I hero, and who is still ashamed that he and his mother fled Germany and came to England out of fear of what would happen to them if they stayed. He is an intelligence officer who speaks flawless English and German and who resents the fact that he is thought of first as a Jew, not as a British officer.

The Welsh Girl is a coming of age story for its two main characters. Esther’s world begins to come apart when she finds out the hard way that the English soldier she favors is not the honorable man she thought him to be. Ashamed to tell her anti-English father what has happened between them, she nonetheless finds herself reconsidering everything she thought she knew about the world. At the same time, Karsten believes that he has done a cowardly thing by surrendering himself and his men, and the only things that make him even momentarily forget his shame are the memory of the brief conversation he once had with Esther at the prison fence and his efforts to befriend her young boarder.

Peter Ho Davies has populated his isolated Welsh village with complex characters who find themselves fighting their own mini-version of a World War. Each of them has to define loyalty, prejudice and bravery in personal terms and in relation to the world that is tearing itself apart around them. When fate and circumstance briefly throw them together, two of those characters, Esther and Karsten, come to realize what is important and what is not.

This one is not to be missed.

Rated at: 4.0

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