Palimpsest  

Go Back   Palimpsest > Reviews > Book Reviews

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 9th Jun 2007, 22:57   #1
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

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 The Welsh Girl 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.”

Quote:
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:

Quote:
“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.

Quote:
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
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 11th Jun 2007, 19:59   #2
kath
Junior Palimpsestarian
is starting to settle in
 
kath's Avatar
 
Join Date: 21 Mar 2007
Location: Oslo, Norway
Posts: 35
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Looks very interesting. I'll definitely look out for this one! Do I perhaps smell a Booker nominee...?
__________________
Andrew Crumey: Sputnik Caledonia
kath is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 11th Jun 2007, 20:48   #3
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

I'd certainly expect it to be there, although the critical reception in the UK hasn't been quite so enthusiastic as my comments.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10th Aug 2007, 10:13   #4
Stewart
Once known as Blixa
takes it to extremes
 
Stewart's Avatar
 
Join Date: 26 May 2005
Location: Glasgow
Posts: 6,884
Send a message via MSN to Stewart
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self View Post
I'd certainly expect it to be there
And so it came to pass.

I just want to say that even though I thought I wouldn't really like this - as WWII stories don't tend to attract me as there's a resultant stigma from someone, in my youth, tried to forcefeed me a Sven Hassell book - I really like Ho Davies' style. There's something in his writing that catches details I would never think to address, let alone fleetingly mention, in order to sucessfully realise his ficitonal milieu.

But I'm only forty pages in. Outlook: good.
__________________
Reading: Concrete Island, J.G. Ballard| flickr | blog | world lit | beer
Stewart is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10th Aug 2007, 14:29   #5
Digger
Senior Palimpsester
has the freedom of Palimp City
 
Digger's Avatar
 
Join Date: 14 Sep 2004
Location: Oxford
Posts: 3,417
Send a message via MSN to Digger
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

This sounds lovely. On my list now. If I read this and the Primo Levi pair sitting on my shelf at home I will have amassed rather a lot of good WWII literature this year.

And oh what a beautiful cover can do to increase the allure of a book!
__________________
'Don't grow up, just find a bigger playground'
Annie Proulx- Barkskins

Book list | Flickr
Digger is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10th Aug 2007, 14:30   #6
paddyjoe
Palimpsestarian
is a palimpsestin' fool!
 
paddyjoe's Avatar
 
Join Date: 28 Apr 2006
Location: Embra
Posts: 659
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Have a look at this ebay listing for somebody selling The Welsh Girl. David Mitchell, Ann Patchett and then John Self's review being used to promote the book.

Wow, respect. Let me touch the hem of his dust jacket.
__________________
Currently Reading: The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro
Read:
14 13
12 11
paddyjoe is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10th Aug 2007, 14:50   #7
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Heh! How extraordinary. Clearly I need to work on my soundbite skills as he felt he had to quote the whole thing.

Actually a quote from my review of Warwick Collins' Gents will be appearing on the back cover of a new edition of the book next month. Pretty soon I will be too famous to talk to you all.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 10th Aug 2007, 15:07   #8
Stewart
Once known as Blixa
takes it to extremes
 
Stewart's Avatar
 
Join Date: 26 May 2005
Location: Glasgow
Posts: 6,884
Send a message via MSN to Stewart
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self View Post
Pretty soon I will be too famous to talk to you all.
And then, fifteen minutes later, when your fame runs out, give us plebs' fickle nature, we'll see you make new friends in Lizzie Webb, Karel Fialka, and Bernie Clifton in Celebrity Big Brother.
__________________
Reading: Concrete Island, J.G. Ballard| flickr | blog | world lit | beer
Stewart is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 23rd Aug 2007, 10:21   #9
Kimberley
Senior Palimpsester
could do better
 
Kimberley's Avatar
 
Join Date: 15 Aug 2006
Location: near London
Posts: 1,902
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

I'm not sure I've completely finished this, so may edit, but here goes...

Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl is a beautiful, haunting, deeply human book based on a certainty that whatever war or tragedy unfolds in the wider world, it is what happens to the individual human being that continues to be the measure of it. I’ve hesitated for days over what to write that is at once expressive of that and also acknowledges its imperfections. The story is fascinating and important, the setting believable and real, the characters (for instance, the raped girl who admits that whatever she feels about the Germans... seems pale compared to what she feels about Colin) are breathing, loving, suffering people portrayed with convincing motivation so that you learn much about their backgrounds without the text being filled in with blocks of exposition as clumsier writers can. They seem to have life that exists beyond the pages, there is something about our lives that they reflect back to us, they are a mirror on the world,

...this really is what Esther wants, what she dimly suspects they all want. To be important, to be the centre of attention

for these are lives that might have been ours, apart from the luck of circumstance. I found myself really sorrowing for Esther and the brave way she deals with the consequence of rape, Besides, what was it to be forced to do something she didn’t want to do? She’d been forced all her life by one circumstance or another- by poverty, by her mother’s death, by the needs of the flock and the novel shows war’s peripheral scenes in fully imagined awfulness, stepping far beyond what you expect of conventional and limited war narrative to show us scenes like POWs sending notification postcards home, and to examine how the limited choice in what they could say may have been a relief.

The novel is a romance but again, not in the conventional and limited sense. The place that characters belong to means as much to them as do those people whom they love, an exploration of which idea must lie behind the choice of title. In so much as you can say such a dense book is about something, it is about belongingness and place and how this might be connected to the relationships between parents and children. Davies describes (and then describes, and describes, which repetitiveness can get irritating, people being identified with sheep, too much so at times) the Welsh concept of Cynefin, the identification of the flock with its territory over generations, passing from mother to daughter. These concepts sre linked to an interesting discussion of nationality - Rotherham is called Jewish though Judaism is matrilineal and when his mother who was spat on in Berlin, it was because she was not German enough - she was Canadian. And Esther’s name itself is interestingly reminiscent of the Biblical character who risks her life to save her adopted father and the Jewish people, just as her father takes on the legendary name Arthur.

As important as parents are for the plot, it is motherlessness and fatherlessness that really drive it. We are very aware of Karsten growing up without a father and Esther without a mother, in his Vaterland and her Motherland. In these parallels you see them wedded to their countries despite the circumstances that bring them together. Esther’s father cannot survive without her, and Karsten appreciates his own position; Karsten’s father’s loss has always had about it an air of desertion as his mother sees it; he can’t desert her, too. And Esther ultimately makes meaning for her own life out of the place where she is from. She’s connected to her Welsh town to the place because of history, because of being female, matrilineage is what matters here, even the two male characters (Rhys, who dies, and Karsten, who returns to Germany) live with their widowed mothers. Meanwhile, Esther takes in Jim, the war child who becomes a link between them because he says he has no mother and she identifies with that -- although this turns out not to be true. One of the ways the novel deals with this theme is showing how an inability to express parental affection and loss could lie behind violent acts, with the war child being torn between being unable to admit he misses his father in front of the others, and unable to say he doesn’t for fear of seeming disloyal. Nationality is in every case shown as being less significant than the family and blood ties that prove where we really belong. And people's individual lives can step beyond all group expectation; despite the war against Germany, it is an English outsider who rapes Esther, a German outsider who saves the farm at the end.

One particularly beautiful feature of the novel is its insistence on the possibilities of language and the beauty of words. There is repeated wordplay with the word Welsh, and references to the differences between Wales and England that are perhaps most apparent in their separate languages. Explicitly, we are reminded of Welsh having once been banned in schools, that using English is beneath her father’s dignity and that the nationalist view of the war is that it’s an English war, imperialists, capitalist, like the Great War. The limitations of language are also canvassed. Esther, believing that rape must end in murder, struggles to come up with a word for what has happened to her until, pregnant, she acknowledges that she may have been raped after all -- she might die from the consequences of abortion or childbirth or, perhaps even more horrifyingly, from shame.

Later, Davies writes that it’s as if the language is coming to life, talking back to her in its slippery English tongue - when she thinks about Colin being captured and facing confinement. The word itself is a cell to her - I wonder how a man knows to write this!! Davies’ cleverness with certain words makes you hear them as though for the first time. We have pacifist with emphasis on FIST - the English word containing its own rebuke , Esther considering impregnable shore defences and her mourning sickness play on words when telling Rhys’s mother that the baby is his. This wordplay seems to acknowledge that many clichés are rooted in a certain truthfulness -- universal life experiences (loss, desire) connect us together as human beings and despite the limited range of words we have in which to share them, are always unique.

The novel is beautiful and intimate and flawed. There is so much signification layered on top of their lives that sometimes the sheer meaningfulness imposed upon everything threatens to suffocate. The sections about Hess are the novel’s weakest points, and perhaps it’s a sign of the author’s trembling faith in the power of the personal story that he feels politically important characters are necessary to bolster it. Early in the book, Rotherham has difficulty believing it’s really Hess and though this acknowledgement does helps readers over disbelief too I’m not sure he is significant enough to the text for all this effort at suspending disbelief to really pay off. (Admittedly, his presence does allow for discussion of Nazi films which, as Hess says, were beautiful and which must have played some significant part in Davies’ research for the book). Another aspect of imagery that becomes irritatingly self-conscious is that of imprisonment, linked most obviously to the POW camp being built nearby. And there are more that a few instances where the author can’t resist spelling out something that an perceptive reader must realise (for instance, after describing how a sheep whose baby died adopts another when her own baby’s skin is wrapped around it, Esther asks has she deceived, or been deceived? Is she the lamb, the ewe, the shepherd?) Clues that she is pregnant (morning sickness, eating picked eggs) are very obvious and clumsy. Instances of overly drawn explanation multiply until by end of the novel, it feels like Davies wants to explain the entire war, describing the German feeling about power as perhaps it was luck, but once you have enough lick, it starts to feel like fate. Then by third last page when he says sheep have lived in Wales for hundreds of years, my margin notes argh, let it go. It really is too much. I hope Davies will be more confident and trust his readers more with his next book.

It is greatly to the book’s credit that although it suffers from these flaws, there is enough beauty and truth in it for them to be borne. It’s a meaningful war story and a thoughtful romance, (with Karsten, Esther is allowed to link sex with free choice, with desire, and above all with sharing -- they are both shamed and have surrendered, and find comfort with each other). I found myself being glad they had their moment together because this seems to provide some sort of solace in a world where tragedy is played out on all scales, from grand war narratives to the smaller tragedies, Esther’s mother never getting to the end of Middlemarch, a man who can’t remember when he last touched another live thing, even to what happens to the sheep. One of the most vividly realised moments to me was Esther’s heartbreaking resignation to being raped and pregnant, that In the meantime, there’s nothing to be protected from any more and realisation that she is as much a prisoner as anyone.

The idea of surrender is a continuing motif within the novel. Karsten himself, who has no choice between surrendering and death, faces the devastating realisation that their surrender wasn’t that one moment already past, at the mouth of the bunker, but somehow will go one and on. He wonders what more they’ll have to give up before it’s over. Everything but their lives, probably. It’s only in glancing back through the pages afterwards that I appreciate the fine imagination Davies has demonstrated in creating a world where this doesn’t happen. German POWs help rebuild and former enemies are kinder to each other than you expect. A question is asked, will all surrendered soldiers be traitors after the war, or just Germans? And the answer is, just Germans, and more than that, just human beings, living out their individual lives in the way that to them seems best. The novel is perfectly set in wartime where those great human experiences of love and loss are condensed into a smaller timescale. This to me is where its essential worth lies, in a portrayal of lived human experience that struggles towards the authentic. It is an important and beautiful book, and I am very moved by it. 1/2

Last edited by Kimberley; 23rd Sep 2007 at 12:28. Reason: spoiler warning added.
Kimberley is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 23rd Aug 2007, 11:47   #10
John Self
Administrator
suffers from smallness of vision
 
John Self's Avatar
 
Join Date: 27 Jun 2003
Location: Belfast
Posts: 15,939
Default Re: Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis, Kimberley. I've taken the liberty of adding a spoiler warning to the top of your post as I do think the fact that Esther is raped is dramatic and surprising enough when reading it for any foreknowledge to spoil the effect.

The point about 'has she deceived, or been deceived' reminds me of Philip Larkin's poem Deceptions, from which he took the title of his first collection The Less Deceived. Of course the subject matter is relevant to what happens to Esther in The Welsh Girl.
__________________
Reading Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate | Asylum | Book List
John Self is offline   Reply With Quote
Reply


Currently Active Users Viewing This Thread: 1 (0 members and 1 guests)
 
Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

Similar Threads
Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
Greenland: Part 2a John Self Features 5 8th Aug 2006 17:01


All times are GMT +1. The time now is 22:58.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2018, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.