Sun, May 06, 2007 - Page 19 News List

British soldiers, German prisoners and a Welsh barmaid

Peter Ho Davies’ ‘The Welsh Girl’ examines two great themes, dislocation and cowardice, through the story of a WWII POW camp in remote northern Wales


The Welsh Girl is a distinguished, beautifully written example of a small but enduring genre. Call it the counterwar novel. Not anti-war, exactly; it lacks the belligerence.

What it has is quieter and deeper. To adapt a Spanish saying, it tells of those who, presented with history's lined paper, write the other way. Those who thread, or are made to thread, their own lateral path through the big battalions.

Jean Renoir's great film Grand Illusion is one example, with a French prisoner and the German commandant briefly touching a common humanity. So in a way is the Japanese general in Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima.

Setting his novel in a Welsh village during World War II, Peter Ho Davies works a trio of characters out of the fixities imposed by their time and condition. One is a British military interrogator, half-Jewish, who left Germany as a child. The second is a young villager, impregnated in a rape by a British soldier stationed near her village. The third is a German prisoner.

Davies starts each of them in mutually far-removed worlds and floats them together almost by chance. A characteristic of this writer, himself part Welsh, is to set up his characters with deeply scored identities while treating what happens to them as if they were leaves blown in the wind. Each is a castle and each is dust.

Rotheram, the interrogator, seems at first to have his own dramatic story, separate from the others. He is dispatched to talk to Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy, who had mysteriously flown to Britain at the start of the war. Rotheram's task is not to debrief this thoroughly and unproductively debriefed figure, but to turn up indications as to whether he is sane enough to stand trial after the Allies' approaching victory.

Publication notes


By Peter Ho Davies

Houghton Mifflin

338 pages

The Hess talks, a scintillating instance of fictional imagination applied to history, present a theatrically enigmatic figure both evading and needling his questioner. (At one stunning moment, when the two are on an escorted walk, a bull charges them. Hess produces a red handkerchief, flourishes it with the remark that he will be executed anyway, and shoves Rotheram to safety. When the bull veers off, he mutters with the sudden sardonic sanity of the mad: "An old man wasn't worth his trouble, apparently.")

Seemingly the Hess episodes are an aside from the novel's theme: personal identity versus the impersonal distortions of national identity and war. In scattered appearances, Rotheram, his name Anglicized, struggles to decide who he is: German, British or — and here Hess' malicious goading comes into play — a Jew.

Only very briefly does Rotheram cross paths with Esther Evans. (Such is the deliberately and sometimes confusingly frail structure of the story, in contrast with the vividness of characters and theme.) A shepherd's daughter, working as barmaid in the local pub, she is not so much an actor as a pulsating moral register of the currents that run through the story.

She is a peacemaker between the pub's Welsh-speaking regulars and the detested British soldiers stationed nearby. Confined in her Welsh world but loyal to it, she craves escape into something larger. For a while this is to be the soldier who courts her; when he rapes her and leaves her pregnant, her confinement has doubled. She bears it with a grace so quiet that the episodes relating her village life sometimes approach the somnolent.

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