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3.5 out of 5 stars
The Welsh Girl
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Sometimes a book is a delight to discover. I found this novel to be beautifully written and immensely enjoyable to read, the characters are so well drawn and I cared about them all, because of how the author allows us into their deepest thoughts, and concentrates on developing the main characters, Esther and Karsten, and also Rotheram, so fully and effectively. I cared so much for the futures of Esther and Karsten the more I read of the novel, willing them to make good somehow. The gentle build up to the interlinking of the lives of these is beautifully, cleverly done.

Esther works in a pub in the village, as well as attending to farming duties with her father, as her mother is no longer with them. Additionally they take in evacuees, the latest one being Jim, who develops a natural curiosity about the POWs when they arrive on the outskirts of the farm, and he forms a fleeting attachment to one of them, Karsten. Soldiers and Welsh locals drink uneasily alongside each other in the pub. At the start of the novel, Esther has formed an attachment to Colin, one of the 'sappers' deployed there from England. Rotheram meanwhile, is sent to Wales to attempt to derive information from Rudolf Hess who is secretly being held there, and claiming a form of amnesia. Eventually, the paths of Esther, Karsten, and Rotheram will pass, but I won't say anymore about the plot, let the reader discover. Only to say I especially liked the character of Karsten, feeling the drudge of the life in the camp, the endless waiting for some news of a letter, the outside world, and seeing how he viewed the events, what he had been fighting for, and what surrender meant to him.

The backdrop to the events was, for me, described just enough to really give the reader a chance to feel immersed in the surroundings and social circumstances of the day, but never overly lengthy.
The themes covered, including the nature and traditional vocations of Wales, patriotism, national identity and pride, bravery/cowardice and surrender, with the setting in time of the later end of World War Two, and in location primarily of a village in North Wales. We learn of how the sense of place is applied to a shepherd's flock in his field, and how those within the novel, in particular the German soldier, Karsten, and the now 'English' Rotheram, are thinking about where they fit in, about belonging somewhere or nowhere, and about how and where the lines of nationality and belonging are drawn.

I felt I gained a valuable insight into aspects of people living in wartime through this novel, and learned about people. Gentle and brilliant.
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The novel has two distinct story-lines, which merge near the end. In the first, Rotherham, a cosmopolitan lawyer and translator with fluent German, is sent to interrogate Rudolf Hess, incarcerated in Wales after his mad, hopeless flight from Germany to Scotland during WWII. The army knows it is winning by now and Rotherham has been working in a War Crimes unit - his dearest wish is to be part of the prosecution of the German high command. His father was a Jew in Germany who made sure Rotherham was sent to safety. But now he suspects he is being sidelined and that his superiors don't really expect him to get beneath the impervious hide of Hess, who so far has been immune to everything the British can come up with.

In the second plot/story-line, to be honest the most engaging of the two, our main protagonist is Esther, a young Welsh girl who, having refused to entertain marriage to her near-neighbour Rhys, is now clandestinely meeting a sapper, who is part of a contingent building a mysterious depot of some kind - though none of the army builders will divulge the secret of what it is to hold.

The place and time is vividly brought to life, the Welsh hillside village, the life of Esther's father - once a skilled slate quarry miner, now reduced to keeping a flock of sheep, and the life of Esther herself and their evacuee, Jim, who is periodically subjected to bullying by the local children, but remains indomitable and full of mischief. When it becomes clear what the 'depot' is intended to house, a train of events is set in motion that is to change the whole atmosphere of the village - leading to a wartime romance for Esther.

This moving and highly engaging novel has everything - betrayal, wartime secrets, clandestine sex, the terror of the combatant under fire, and in some of the Welsh village sections, an atmosphere of pastoral lyricism. It is elegantly written, brilliantly characterised, tenderly evocative and an absolute joy to read.
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on 13 January 2013
This book is important. It makes significant, coherent - as far as possible - comment on the human condition. It shows the accident of context, the untidy common purpose of people in their setting, the essential unimportance of the variety of our origins, alongside our capacity to sustain destruction. Cynethin is a concept that should be taught in all schools and anyone who needs to learn how to write sentences can open any page.
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on 13 November 2011
enjoying it and my book club friends all love it. Worth a read, easy to read and quite gripping in parts. Preferred the second half.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 4 April 2008
Simply one of the best books I've read in a long time. It was beautifully written, very thought provoking and moved me very much. I will certainly look out for Peter Ho Davies's next book.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 31 March 2008
I read this and have to say it was one of the best books I have read so far this year. A realistic but endearing story of characters you could believe in, we have met all of these people at some time! Others have explained the story and I do not need to do that again this is just to say read it, it deserves your attention.
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on 17 May 2015
OK
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