Set in the stunning landscape of North Wales just after D-Day, Peter Ho Davies’s profoundly moving first novel traces the intersection of disparate lives in wartime. When a POW camp is established near her village, seventeen-year-old barmaid Esther Evans finds herself strangely drawn to the camp and its forlorn captives. She is exploring the camp boundary when the astonishing occurs: Karsten, a young German corporal, calls out to her from behind the fence. From that moment on, the two foster a secret relationship that will ultimately put them both at risk. Meanwhile, another foreigner, the German-Jewish interrogator Rotherham, travels to Wales to investigate Britain's most notorious Nazi prisoner, Rudolf Hess. In this richly drawn and thought-provoking work, all will come to question where they belong and where their loyalties lie.
Following two widely praised short-story collections, Equal Love
and The Ugliest House in the World
, Peter Ho Davies's first novel, The Welsh Girl
, deserves to be equally well received. It carefully examines two great themes, dislocation and cowardice, through the stories of a WWII POW camp built by the British in the remote mountains of northern Wales and Esther, the 17-year-old Welsh girl at the heart of the story. The POW camp, filled with Germans, is yet another national insult, as far as the Welsh are concerned, only one of many instances of prejudice between and among the novel's characters: Welshman against Brit and vice versa, Brits and Welshmen against Germans, Germans against Jews. Some of these enmities are age-old antagonisms; others are newly-minted political killing machines.
Davies introduces a Welsh concept--cynefin--for which there is no English equivalent. It means a certain knowledge and sense of place that is passed down the matrilineal line in a flock of sheep. They always know where they belong and never leave their own turf. It is a perfect metaphor for much of what takes place in this carefully plotted story, and for the displacement felt by many of the characters. Esther longs to escape her village, yet is devoted to the flock and to her father. She meets Colin, an English soldier, in the pub where she works. He is a rough sort and things end very badly between them.
Another theme visited again and again is the concept of cowardice. Is it cowardly to save one's life and the lives of others by surrendering to the enemy? Is death the price that must be paid to be considered brave? The German POWs debate this endlessly, especially Karsten, an intelligent, sensitive soldier who did surrender himself and his men when it was clear that all was lost. When he and Esther find one another under impossible circumstances, Davies renders their relationship perfectly: it is star-crossed, but desperately important to both of them, setting them both "free" in the truest sense of the word. The Welsh Girl is a beautifully told story of love, war, and the accommodations we make in the midst of both. --Valerie Ryan