Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

It's a close June night in the Welsh hills, taut with the threat of tunder, and the radios of the village cough with static. The Quarryman's Arms, with the tallest aerial for miles around, is a scrum of bodies, all waiting to hear Churchill's broadcast. [pg 23]


The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
Mariner Books, 2007
Fiction; 338 pgs


Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl opens and closes with Rotheram’s story. He was raised by his mother, a German Lutheran, his Jewish father having died when he was young. He never quite fit in while growing up in Germany—he technically was not Jewish being that his mother was a Christian but the Germans classified him as a Jew because of his father’s heritage. The ambiguity this caused would have an impact on the man he would eventually become.

It was 1941 when Rotheram, now in the British Army, was sent to Wales in the United Kingdom to interrogate Rudolf Hess, Deputy Furher of the Third Reich. Hess had traveled to England near the beginning of the war and claimed amnesia over the events that took place in Germany before that time. He denied any recollection of his part in the war. Rotheram was assigned the task of determining whether or not Hess was competent to stand trial for war crimes. Rotheram and Hess are but a small part of the novel. They provide an anchor of sorts for the story of Karsten, Esther and Jim.

Esther is a seventeen year old barmaid, working at a local pub. The Welsh sit on one side of the bar while the British soldiers sit on the other. There is an old animosity between the two groups, an ancient disdain for one another that has been carried down for generations. World War II is underway and the soldiers are part of a construction detail. While at first the nature of their project is kept a secret, it soon becomes clear that it will be a camp for prisoners of the war.

Esther is so innocent. Her mother died when she was young and she was raised by her father, a proud Welsh man who holds tightly to his roots. She is a farm girl, raised on a sheep farm. Esther is well read, her English better than most in the town, but there is so much in the world she does not yet know. Her romance with a young British soldier goes horribly wrong, and she ends up suffering the consequences, her world irrevocably changed. She blames herself for things that she had little to no control over. She wraps herself in her blame and guilt, closing out those around her, sure they will not understand. She keeps her secrets hidden, fearing what others will think.

It was common practice during wartime for the British to send their children to the countryside, in the hopes that they would be safer there, away from the bombings and fighting. Jim was one such evacuee. Esther takes Jim in and tries what she can to get close to him. However, Jim is angry and mistrusting and not so easy to reach. Jim is resourceful though and resilient. Even though he is the butt of many jokes by the boys he calls friends, he never gives up trying to fit in and prove himself. Try as he might not to show he needs anyone, Jim craves the love and attention of a man. He once had that in Rhys, a local boy who had gone off to war. Now Jim feels alone and lost.

Meanwhile, on the coast of France, Karsten, a corporal in the German Army, is trapped in a bunker with two of his fellow soldiers, one his superior and the other a young boy who lied about his age to fight in the war. Karsten is the only one of the two who speaks English. At the insistence of his commanding officer, Karsten surrenders to the British on the beach. He is now a prisoner of war.

Karsten saw much during his childhood, his mother raising him on her own after his father died at sea. She ran an inn and Karsten often would help her. He learned about the world and about people during his early years. He went off to war hoping to be like his father. He is thoughtful, a bit of an outsider, never quite fitting in with the others. Karsten feels guilty and ashamed for surrendering to the enemy. He is mocked for it by his fellow prisoners.

Esther, Jim and Karsten could not be more different. And yet, they are very much alike. Each outcasts. Each with doubts and fears, struggling to survive as best they can. As their stories come together, the three characters find in each other a part of what they’ve been missing. There is a comfort in that but also a great danger.

The Welsh Girl is one of those books that sneaks up on you. It begins slowly as the author sets up the story, introduces the characters, and takes his time before bringing them together at the midway point.

The Welsh Girl is a character driven book. The characters are simple in some ways, but complex in others. The Welsh countryside itself is a strong part of the story. The Welsh culture, the conflict with the British, the history and strong roots of the land and people all building a strong foundation for the novel. It was interesting to read how the relationships between the different ethnic groups played out. That between the British and the Welsh often times ran hot and cold. And it was similar with the Germans. And what of the Jew who kept his real heritage a secret from those around him?

The author did quite a bit of research for his novel, including investigating the history of prisoner of war camps both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. He offered a glimpse at how the Germans imprisoned felt, the strong sense of patriotism that remained and kept them going, the hope they shared and the fears they would not speak about. Camp life was dull and repetitive. The confinement was stifling.

Hess is the only character in the novel based on a real person. Rudolf Hess did in fact exist, and, while the author took liberties in creating the story around him, his fate and the basic outline of his story are based in fact.

The Welsh Girl touches on several different themes: nationalism, loyalty, and the meaning of freedom among them. Each of the characters, including Rotheram, grows in the course of the novel, their experiences shaping them. Peter Ho Davies’ has written a novel that offers much food for thought. It is enjoyable and well worth reading.

Rating: * (Good +)


Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: War Through the Generations: WWII Challenge

Be sure to check the author's website for more information about the author and his book.

37 comments:

  1. This sounds good to me! I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the great review, Wendy! :)

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  2. From your review I can see it is indeed character-driven. Jim sounds like an interesting character to me. I'd like to know him better if I read the book. Thanks for the review, Wendy!

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  3. What makes any book special is when the location and culture is almost like another character. For those of us who've never visited Wales, for instance, we can almost travel there with the right author. Great review!

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  4. I am so glad to see a positive review of this book! I read it a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. Not everyone does, but I thought it was a very interesting and compelling read.

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  5. This was on one of my TBR lists a while back, and I'd forgotten about it! The library didn't have it at the time, but they might now. Great review and thanks for the reminder!

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  6. Fantastic review, now I know I want to read this!

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  7. I'm not sure that this is a book I would enjoy, but your review has me intrigued.

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  8. I like character-driven novels and having studied history in college, the setting of this one is particularly interesting to me. I've not heard of it before so thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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  9. I love that the Welsh countryside was also an important character in this story. I really enjoyed your review of this one.

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  10. I've had this sitting on Mt. TBR forever it seems - I'll have to move it closer to the top!

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  11. Sounds interesting. I don't mind books that build up slowly.

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  12. Oh Wendy, I was happy to read your review on this one (sounds like it's worth a read). I have it on my shelf somewhere :)

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  13. I remember when this book just came out and I quickly added it to my list. I have it now but it's been languishing on my shelves. I do want to read it (and your review definitely makes it sound very good) it's just that war books I have to be "prepared" for sort of. You know they are going to be difficult stories so gotta get ready for them you know.

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  14. I own this book but try as I might I can't get into it...

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  15. Sounds like just the sort of thing I might write myself :)
    I'll have to have a look.

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  16. Melody - It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, I was hooked.

    Alice - Although the main focus was on Esther and Karsten, Jim really stood out for me this book and I couldn't help but count him as a major character.

    Sandy - I agree! I love it when the setting and culture play a big part in the story. It sets the atmosphere for the overall story.

    Marg - I remember quite a few people commenting when I was reading this one about how difficult they found it--or slow. It's definitely a book worth sticking with, I think! I'm glad I took a chance on it.

    Yvonne - Thanks!

    Jenclair - I'll be really interested to read what you think if you do get to this one, Jenclair.

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  17. Carey - Thanks, Carey! I hope you will enjoy it if you get the chance to read it.

    Charley - I was really curious about this one, especially because of the time period. My favorite parts were definitely those involving Karsten.

    Kathleen - The setting and time period in this one really intrigued me as well. I haven't read too much about the prisoner of war camps and was curious about the impact they had on the locals.

    Staci - I felt like I was right there. :-)

    Carrie (B&M) - I hope you will enjoy it, Carrie. I found it got off to a slow start, but I ended up liking it in the end.

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  18. Kathy - I don't either. Some of my favorite books got off to slow starts. :-)

    Diane - I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Iliana - It's one of those books that I had to be in the mood to read and maybe it'll be like that for you.

    Kelly - It took me awhile in the beginning, but it held my interest enough until it really took off in the second half--and then there was no turning back.

    Al - I definitely would like to read more by the author in the future. I hope you will enjoy this one if you do read it.

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  19. One of my book group members read this one and really enjoyed it. I love character driven novels. Thanks for the great review.

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  20. Ti - I enjoy a good character driven novel too, especially when the characters come to life right off the pages. :-)

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  21. As long as the plot gets going, I don't mind a book that would sneak up on me. Ho Davies seems to do a good job setting up a story that is unforgettable. Gotta look up this book. :)

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  22. This sounds like a book that absorbs you into it little by little. I'd love to read it just because of the setting, the country side and its importance in the story But then Esther also appeals to me with the difficulties she's had in life and blaming herself and feeling no one will understand. Still she reaches out to Jim and wants to help him. These are characters I know I'd like. Thanks for a wonderful review! This is going on my TBR list!

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  23. I actually really like books that continue to build as you read. However, they are terrible for my sleep patterns since I can never put them down and end up reading too far into the night. LOL!

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  24. I like this is set around WWII and that it covers some wide themes. I'm putting this on the TBR list.

    Thanks for the great review.

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  25. Matt - This one definitely did sneak up on me. I wasn't sure at first I would like it, but I was soon hooked. I wouldn't mind reading more by this author.

    Amy (7 Tails) - That's a good way of putting it, "a book that absorbs you into it little by little." That was definitely true for this one!

    Esther was such a strong young woman even with the internal struggles she went through. I really liked her.

    Kristen - LOL I know what you mean. I love books that keep me up late into the night.

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  26. Serena - I was especially interested in this book because of it being tied to WWII. I hadn't known much about the prisoner of war camps, especially in Europe at the time so this offered an interesting perspective.

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  27. I love that expression, "the book that sneaks up on you". I don't think I've ever heard it but there are a number of books now that I know the expression that could be classified as such.
    I usually don't like to read any WWII books but The Welsh Girl certainly sounds like one worth reading. I'm going to have to put it on my wish list now.

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  28. Thos one sounds very good. Great review!

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  29. thanks for reading and reviewing this. i've been wanting to read it forever. :-)

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  30. Great review Wendy! I saw this one a while back and thought it might be something I'd like. I still think so.

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  31. Lilly - You might like this, Lilly. I think that even those not really into WWII literature might find this appealing.

    Stacy, Marie & Dar - Thank you!

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  32. I really enjoyed this as well. He's an excellent writer and I've been meaning to give his short stories a try sometime!

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  33. Danielle - He definitely is very talented. I am glad you enjoyed this one as well.

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  34. Thanks for the well-written review! I'd like to read this one at some point. I'll get this up on War Through the Generations as soon as I can. I'm a bit behind in updating that site. (Sorry!)

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  35. Anna - Thank you, Anna! No need to apologize. I understand. :-)

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