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3.5 out of 5 stars55
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The Welsh Girl is an odd compendium of different stories. Firstly, we have the intriguingly named Rotheram, a German émigré who is working for the British army in 1944, trying to work out whether Rudolph Hess is fit to be tried.

Then we have the story of Esther Williams, the Welsh Girl of the title, as she adapts to the arrival of evacuees and her own little bundle of joy, whilst she deals with the loss of her mother and various friends.

And then there is the story of Karsten, a German prisoner of war.

The three stories overlap only tangentially, due to collocation in a Welsh speaking village. They have common themes, though, in exploring concepts of loss, shame, guilt, nationalist patriotism, freedom and, perhaps, hope. The stories are competently told - although there does seem to be some needless fuzziness over whether and when Karsten learns Esther's name. They have some complexity but are told in perfectly lucid fashion. The language feels plain, but probably isn't.

The characterization is strong. The key characters have depths of feeling and insecurity that are graphically communicated. This depth of character extends even to careful, albeit brief, depiction of some of the bit part players: Jack the barman, Jim the evacuee; the Major; Hess and all. The imagery of the Welsh countryside is also strong, with the fields and the slate mine adding a contrast of textures.

In terms of style, there is a good balance between the serious themes and the humour provided by Harry and Mary, a couple of radio entertainers who are broadcasting from the relative safety of Wales. This is welcome relief in what might, otherwise, be a rather intense work. There are also some metaphors that would probably dazzle if one thought about them for long enough - the instinct of sheep to remain within their territory is perhaps laid on a bit too thick, but is effective nonetheless.

But the Achilles heel of the novel is that it feels a little too clinical. Like the stylized travel poster cover, the novel feels just a bit sterile. There isn't quite enough emotion to draw the reader into any of the characters and the direction of the story lines is rather predictable. The reader has a role of impartial observer rather than feeling involved in the process. The final epilogue is too long and would have detracted from any emotional crescendo at the end of the final chapter - had there really been a crescendo.

The Welsh Girl is a well written novel of substance, but it does seem to lack the wow factor that could have made it a great.
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VINE VOICEon 27 July 2008
It's Snowdonia in the months following D-Day and everyone, it seems, has a secret.

The Welsh-speaking population of the local village has been supplemented by influxes of German POWs, English soldiers and evacuees (adults and children) from Liverpool and London. Peter Ho Davies uses this scenario to explore ideas of identity, place and belonging.

This is a well crafted novel that sticks closely to its major themes. The main characters, Kirsten the POW and Rotherham, a British intelligence officer of German background, are empathetically drawn. However, the barmaid Esther (the Welsh girl of the title) fails to convince as a 17-year old living in the 1940s. The failure of the UK publishers to remove some glaring Americanisms adds to the sense that this novel is set in somebody's vague idea of wartime Britain.

Whilst the quality of the writing saves the novel from descending into soapdom, there are perhaps a few too many secrets and a subplot involving Rudolf Hess sits awkwardly beside the main narrative.

Good enough to pass as an unchallenging holiday read - especially if you're heading for Snowdonia - but you probably won't want to take it back home with you.
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on 1 April 2008
I had very high hopes for this book, so I suppose I was destined for disappointment. As others have said, it plods at first and I had to persevere beyond the first third of the book. However, as the story of Esther and those around her developed, it became far more readable.

It is a beautifully written novel, by an author with obvious talent. However, in addition to the slow start, I felt that the Rotherham / Hess storyline wasn't threaded in well at all, and although an intrigueing subject, it was almost like reading a second book whose pages had become interspersed with the main storyline. I just don't see what it added.

It is worth a read as it's clear some love it. I just wished I had gone into blind, as it wasn't the groundbeaker I was expecting.
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I wanted to like this book, but the truth is, it just bored me. I couldn't see the point of it. It didn't seem to be about anything. I know some people might say I've missed the point of it or it's about a place and a moment in time, but I just look at all the praise it's garnered and wonder if they're talking about a different book. It's very well-written but it's just too sterile, too clinical. I never really felt anything about any of the characters and some of them I couldn't see the point of at all, most particularly the storyline involving Rotherham and Hess. It just didn't seem to do anything for the book and the link to Esther and Karsten's story was tenuous in the extreme.
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on 8 April 2008
I really enjoyed this book. I agree with the other reviews saying that it is not 'captivating' - I can see how it could be viewed as such. It is a lovely, quiet read though - nothing that shakes your bones, but something that will relax you and it is easy to just slip into this book like an old sock.

So in a way - I was very much captivated by it, but in a different way then I am captivated by other books. My desire to read was not fuelled by the desire to finish the book and find out what happens next. I read it because it felt like a comfortable old slipper that warms your cold, worn feet. A strange comparison, perhaps but fitting.

My only complaint, was that from the blurb I was expecting it to be more about Hess - he featured twice in the book and only for a short, largely insignificant amount of time. I feel that the book would not have sold purely on its own without that temptation at the back.

I was slightly disappointed in this as a story about Hess would have been interesting. It follows the story of Esther - the welsh girl and the german POW, rather then Hess.

Despite that, I still enjoyed it very much for what it was - a beautifully written book that takes you straight into the Welsh village, into the life of a plain farm girl.
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on 12 January 2009
Our fascination with the Second World War and in particular the Nazi regime, seems endless. It also seems that every slant, every fact, every possible point of view must surely have been covered. The Welsh Girl gives us something more to think about. Set in a remote Snowdonian village in 1944, Captain Rotheram, a German born Jew seconded to British Intelligence, arrives to interrogate Rudolf Hess, ultimately to ascertain whether he is fit for trial. The interviews make interesting reading and Hess is chillingly well-drawn.
The isolated village, with its anti-war, anti-English bigotry, gives an insight into the Welsh character which is still relevant today. Esther Evans, 17 years old, living with her widowed father on a sheep farm, finds the sudden influx of English Sappers, drafted in to build a camp for German prisoners, more than a distraction. But when they leave and the prisoners arrive, Esther finds herself drawn towards Karsten, a soldier only a year older than herself. Shunned by the other inmates for choosing to save his men by surrender, Karsten is tormented by what he sees as his own cowardice. There are some good characterisations here and a fine sense of period. Jim, the young English evacuee, whose acceptance by the local children is hard won. Karsten himself and Captain Rotheram, whose circumstances have set him so far apart that he can't find his place in the world. Overall, this is a story about relationships and how the conditions of conflict can test and damage even the most resolute. An interesting subject, well presented.
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on 31 December 2007
Peter Ho Davies has a history of writing about belonging - belonging to place and culture mainly. This is not surprising, as his name suggests his parents were from Wales and Malaysia, and he was brought up in the English Midlands. The Welsh Girl is no exception to the theme of belonging with the plot focusing on Esther a young Welsh woman in 1944 who works in a bar and a farm in a village where German prisoners of war are imprisoned nearby. Her encounters with the English soldiers building the prisoner of war camp and a German who escapes from the camp form the other theme in the book that of betrayal and how to survive it. The theme of belonging is encapsulated by the stories about the flocks of sheep tended by Esther's father who are said to be cynefin, (for which there is no English equivalent), which means having a certain knowledge and sense of place that is passed down the matrilineal line. Both the attractiveness of belonging to a place but also it's restrictive nature are well described in the book where the author points out that Nationalism is at heart a provincial aspiration and specifically reminds the reader that some Welsh nationalists spoke out in support of Hitler before the war.

The second theme of betrayal, I think, is less well done. The introduction of Hess into the story at the beginning and end seems to be a device to remind us that betrayal is never straightforward but its role in the narrative is unclear. The book would have read the same without Hess and his interrogator Rotheram even though some time is spent introducing these characters. The German prisoner Karsten who escapes is a curiosity rather than a character. He surrenders, a form of betrayal, and is imprisoned. He escapes imprisonment, possibly to earn redemption for surrendering, but then has a relationship with Esther which for me was the part of the book that did not work. I'm not sure the author was also convinced as this relationship tales off and is dealt with in a cursory way at the end of the book.

The author deals with big themes but I think he tried to introduce too many into this book. That said I like his writing, his attention to detail and he is very easy to read. I'll certainly be first in the cue to read his next book.
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on 26 June 2007
When Peter Ho Davies (the name is explained by his mixed Chinese and Welsh parentage) was named in Granta Magazine in 2003 as one of the best young British novelists, he had published only two collections of stories. It's just as well then, that now the novel finally has come along, it has all the qualities necessary, if there's any justice*, to make it a sure fire modern classic. And I'm not just saying that because I was seduced by the beautiful cover (although: of course).

It manages this through a very leisurely telling - the plot doesn't really get going until around page 200 - of a story with three complementary characters which allows for rich themes to texture the book, betraying its unaffected style. Those themes are primarily of honour ("Blokes! " says one character. "Sensitive about their bloody honour as any girl about her virtue!") and belonging ("...to escape all those debts and duties, the shackles of nationalism ... it seemed such pure freedom to be without a country").

And Ho Davies comes at them from every angle. The bulk of the book is set in a remote village in north Wales during the Second World War. Locals there, who need no encouragement to hate the English, are incensed that a camp for German Prisoners of War is opened in their midst. A young barmaid, Esther Evans, listens to them, and while "proud of her Welshness ... yearns to be British."

"This corner of north Wales feels such a long way from the centre of life, from London or Liverpool or, heavens, America. But nationalism, she senses, is a way of putting it back in the centre, of saying that what's here is important enough."

Meanwhile, one of the German prisoners, Karsten Simmering, is wracked with guilt - and despised by his comrades - for having surrendered his men on D-Day, trapped in a bunker when "the first bright spear of the flamethrower lanced through the firing slit, boiling across the ceiling." He wonders how to write to his mother, whether how much her relief that he is safe will be diminished by the knowledge of his `cowardice,' and he strikes up an uneasy friendship with an evacuee boy, Jim, who is staying in Esther Evans' home.

The final thread is Rotheram's, a German Jew who escaped before the war and now works for British Intelligence. He is sent to Wales to interrogate fleed Nazi Rudolf Hess, and has his own issues of belonging and identity ("I used to be a German but now I'm just a Jew"). Hess mocks the troubled English relationship with Wales:

"It seems a peculiarly apt place for my confinement. Isn't Wales where the ancient Britons retreated to? When the Romans came, I mean. Wasn't this their last redoubt? Aren't these" - he waved an arm around, but the country was deserted apart from sheep and cattle - "their descendants? Your Mr Churchill, I gather, had plans to pull back here if we had invaded." Hess smiled thinly. "We'd have made you all Welsh. Instead, it's me who's a little Welsh now."

And so the scene is set for an exploration of the tensions between nations and people - English and Welsh, British and German, Jews and Nazis - and between individuals and their own expectations of themselves. It's a measured and controlled performance - something akin to Ishiguro - and although the feelings and themes are placed lucidly and plainly on the page, Ho Davies' elegant, delicate style and truthful submission to the reality of his characters means the ideas are never overbearing. Even when the pace is slow, it's punctuated and lit up by superb set pieces - radio star Harry Hitch and his endless one-liners; Esther's experience under the tarpaulin in a drained pool; Rudolf Hess's encounter with a bull - and the writing is full of just-so phrases and whole pages of delight.

"A single gutted house still stands at the end of one flattened terrace like an exclamation mark, and suddenly she sees the streets as sentences in a vast book, sentences that have had their nouns and verbs scored through, rubbed out, until they no longer make any sense. All those buildings, she thinks, I'll never see. The boarding houses she'll never sleep in, the cinemas she'll never sit in, the cafes she'll never eat in. And not just here, but in London, in Paris. She had so much wanted to see the world, and now, before she's got any farther than Liverpool, she's beginning to see how much of it is already gone."

The Welsh Girl is a traditional, unshowy novel which builds through a series of epiphanies in its busy last hundred pages into a slow burn triumph.

--

*there isn't
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 31 March 2008
It's unusual to find an original, fresh take on a war story, and therefore 'The Welsh Girl' is a treat. The writing is highly competent and enjoyable to read throughout. I was very surprised to discover it is a first novel, it is such an assured effort. It is certainly one of my favourites from the 2008 Galaxy book prize shortlist.

It focuses on three characters; one a German prisoner of war, one a Welsh farmer's daughter and the third a German Jew working as a translator for the Allies. The common theme is a search for identity and belonging, particularly in the sense of nationality. Of the three, I liked the storylines of the first two most and felt that they threaded together better.

The characters are likeable and believable, and the plot works well. There's really not a lot to criticise, excpet that maybe the 'Captain Rotherham' storyline could have been better integrated. It's not an outstanding book - and that is wh I have rated it 4 stars instead of 5 - but it is a rewarding and worthwhile read.
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The Welsh Girl is an odd compendium of different stories. Firstly, we have the intriguingly named Rotheram, a German émigré who is working for the British army in 1944, trying to work out whether Rudolph Hess is fit to be tried.

Then we have the story of Esther Williams, the Welsh Girl of the title, as she adapts to the arrival of evacuees and her own little bundle of joy, whilst she deals with the loss of her mother and various friends.

And then there is the story of Karsten, a German prisoner of war.

The three stories overlap only tangentially, due to collocation in a Welsh speaking village. They have common themes, though, in exploring concepts of loss, shame, guilt, nationalist patriotism, freedom and, perhaps, hope. The stories are competently told - although there does seem to be some needless fuzziness over whether and when Karsten learns Esther's name. They have some complexity but are told in perfectly lucid fashion. The language feels plain, but probably isn't.

The characterization is strong. The key characters have depths of feeling and insecurity that are graphically communicated. This depth of character extends even to careful, albeit brief, depiction of some of the bit part players: Jack the barman, Jim the evacuee; the Major; Hess and all. The imagery of the Welsh countryside is also strong, with the fields and the slate mine adding a contrast of textures.

In terms of style, there is a good balance between the serious themes and the humour provided by Harry and Mary, a couple of radio entertainers who are broadcasting from the relative safety of Wales. This is welcome relief in what might, otherwise, be a rather intense work. There are also some metaphors that would probably dazzle if one thought about them for long enough - the instinct of sheep to remain within their territory is perhaps laid on a bit too thick, but is effective nonetheless.

But the Achilles heel of the novel is that it feels a little too clinical. Like the stylized travel poster cover, the novel feels just a bit sterile. There isn't quite enough emotion to draw the reader into any of the characters and the direction of the story lines is rather predictable. The reader has a role of impartial observer rather than feeling involved in the process. The final epilogue is too long and would have detracted from any emotional crescendo at the end of the final chapter - had there really been a crescendo.

The Welsh Girl is a well written novel of substance, but it does seem to lack the wow factor that could have made it a great.
22 comments|6 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse

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