20/09/2015

The Welsh Girl (by Peter Ho Davies)

I’d never heard of Peter Ho Davies; I would probably never have come across this book, but a friend gave it to me some years ago and I finally decided to read it. It was apparently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and was a Richard and Judy chosen book too, so it’s evidently highly regarded; my only concern was that it might be too ‘literary’ for my tastes.

‘The Welsh Girl’ is set around the end of World War II. The prologue introduces us to a young man called Rotheram, the son of a Lutheran German mother. His father - long-gone - had been Jewish, but he had resisted leaving Germany until he realised that they would be in danger if they stayed. And now he’s working for the British, deputed to see if he can work out whether a major Nazi criminal has lost his memory or not.

Chapter one then brings us to the Welsh hillside, and a young woman called Esther who lives on a farm and works in a bar. There’s some animosity between the Welsh locals and the British soldiers who are stationed nearby, and Esther finds herself caught up in a very unpleasant situation that then shadows her life for the rest of the book.

The third main character is Karsten, a German soldier who’s been promoted to a high rank but is evidently kind and thoughtful; we meet him when he’s about to surrender, for the sake of his comrades, and he will then be taken to a newly formed POW camp in the village where Esther lives.

The novel then follows these very different individuals in the final months of the war, giving some interesting perspectives on the period. We read about shame, from quite different points of view; we see evacuees and soldiers in their daily lives. The war itself is not really happening on stage in the book, and all the individuals, whatever their culture or background, are seen as flawed by likeable humanity.

The writing is good; I found the characterisation a bit superficial, but the story is all told in the present tense which makes for immediacy and quite a compelling tale. There’s an earthiness about it in places; the author doesn’t mince words in describing some situations, although in others he drops hints and leaves it to the reader to see what’s going on. I found the conversations believable, if a bit slow-moving - and felt that I had a better understanding of what it would have been like to live in the war, at least in a small Welsh village.

However, although I read it in just a few days, it didn’t particularly grip or grab me. I doubt if I’ll remember any of the people for more than a week or two, and already I’m wondering just what the story was about. That’s often the way with ‘literary’ fiction.

Still, it made a good read, rather different from my normal fare. Recommended to anyone interested in the war years, who doesn’t mind a fair amount of bad language.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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