The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

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The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: From Rudolf Hess to German POWs, Welsh farm-girls and German Jewish escapees working for the British, everyone in this brilliant WW2-set drama experiences treason or betrayal. The themes are lightly sprinkled across an excellently told story, however, and the whole is just a charm – and highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: December 2007
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340938270

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A young man trying to help the war effort, Rotheram, goes to south Wales to try and get into the mind of someone rather important to any future war crimes trials – Hess, Hitler’s deputy, who flew to the UK with what to the Nazis were treasonous words of appeasement. Things don’t work out quite as Rotheram would expect, however.

Elsewhere the young Esther is in a budding relationship with Colin, a Londoner working as a sapper in north Wales. Esther knows to keep this romance a little on the QT – her Welsh-speaking father for one might not approve. It is bad enough that the sappers are in the area for the sole purpose of converting a holiday resort into a camp for POWs, for this means dumping the enemy upon the doorstep of the farmers and villagers who might be proud to call themselves British if only the English would include the Welsh more – make concessions to the Nationalists – let them into the club, into the war, into the Union.

One of those prisoners is Karsten, an idealistic young soldier, bitter but not broken by a deceased father and a strong physical life. Forced by all sensibility to surrender while manning a gun emplacement on D-Day’s beaches he is still loathed by many of his fellow Germans, and has to think of himself as a traitor.

But then, in this book, everybody is a let-down, or is let down somehow, from the young evacuee boys that stop over at the farm Esther runs with her dad, to Karsten himself, and beyond. Rotheram himself is a showcase example – a man of international ancestry living in Germany, and a Jew to the Nazis if not to himself, working on behalf of the British as an internal agent and interrogative assistant, and finding himself misused. The book asks us how important being betrayed by a person can be in wartime when our countries acting on our behalf can be a lot worse. It is to the credit of the book that it clearly works as a meditation on betrayal, loyalty, mishap and shame, but never forces this down our throats.

There is in fact nothing to disguise a brilliant narrative, told supremely well. The research could also have seemed forced, but it doesn’t – once or twice it may be presented in a visible way but on the whole the entire spread of settings – British soldiers with what still seem to be colonial parlours, Welsh farmsteads and pubs, and POW camps – are perfect in their realisation.

Added to that is what is a lovely and mostly present tense narrative that really gets into the characters’ minds. The surety that Esther, Karsten et al are fully resolved people populating these pages adds to a most easy readability – not hindered by the fact that the three are bound to unite in some form, but refuse to do so for many pages. The support cast is also most evocative.

No element can be singled out to pin the success of the book down on however. The cinematic scenes are quite breathtaking in the minds’ eye – the massed ranks of the Welsh looking down on the German POWs receiving their first meal, their long-awaited cigarettes; the scene where Esther comes closest to being betrayed – and match the success with which, for example, the narrative voice enters Esther’s mind after that and helps her justify all that happened.

There is also a sprinkling of lovely humour – I won’t quote any, and my favourite has the F-word in anyway, but it acts as a very noticeable bonus, and while being seemingly unnecessary in such a meaty but light and engaging work, just adds to the impression that Peter Ho Davies is one to look out for. He seems able to lend his writing hand to anything – the tease with the bull works very well – if not perhaps sustain his brilliant heights throughout the perhaps more introspective final third. But having blooded himself on short stories, he has crafted a first novel that already stands as potentially the best for my 2008.

The only thing stopping this becoming a film just as successful and similarly flavoured as Atonement is the fact that a third would need from-the-German subtitles, a third Welsh-to-English. This isn’t there on the page, however, and even if that might have been an excuse, it leaves you with none whatsoever for trying this brilliant and brilliantly readable book. An economical and dazzling novel, I can think of few that match that horrid cliché of being impossible to put down so closely.

Booklists.jpg The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2008.

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Miss Broon said:

Good to read an expression of my own opinion of this excellent book.