Review of The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007)
Peter Ho Davies’The Welsh Girl provides a refreshing perspective on wartime romance in an old-fashioned novel , telling the story not of the combatants--or the civilians caught in the crossfire--but those stuck on the sidelines.
The Welsh girl of the title is Esther Evens, a sheltered but sharp barmaid who lives in a rural village post-D-day. As a motherless young woman with only her father, a stoic sheep farmer, and the rebellious young evacuee she tries to nurture, Esther yearns for a life beyond the borders of her small town. She spends her nights behind the bar of a local pub serving ungrateful British guards and flirtatious neighbors, all oblivious to Esther’s thirst for adventure and the secret she refuses to admit, even to herself.
Despite her dowdy appearance, Esther catches the eye of Karsten Simmering, a German POW fighting his own internal battles after reluctantly surrendering to the British. Ho Davies bounces between their separate stories, the middle chapters flanked by a sub-plot about German-Jewish interrogator Rotheram. After having fled to Britain, he was sent by the Allies to a prison in Wales to question Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi Party.
Cementing these three intricately woven tales together is the question of identity--religious, cultural, linguistic, and national--with Jewish Rotheram as but one example of the complicated negotiation that occurs between conflicting aspects of the self. Born of a Jewish father and Lutheran mother, Rotheram struggles with his own self-identification: in the eyes of his father’s disapproving family, he is a goy; but from the Nazis perspective, he is, albeit a half-Jew, still a Jew. Despite the disconnect he feels with his Judaism, Rotheram cannot escape his heritage. His story represents the fluidity of identity and the ways each component shifts in strength, according to the circumstances in which one finds oneself.
When refused a drink in Wales, Rotheram fears the bartender knows of his Jewish identity. When Rotheram then discovers he was refused because he was assumed to be British, he awakens to the essential question the novel attempts to answer: “Are we who we think we are, or who others judge us to be?”
Amidst meticulous descriptions of barnyard trysts and bunker bedlam, the most compelling aspect of The Welsh Girl is the psychological complexities of the characters: How many secrets and lies we tell to protect the truth and how personal connections and individual preferences often override allegiance to the country or religion we put our lives on the line for. And, most of all, how a German Jew who speaks English is first Jewish while in Germany, but first a Brit--and simply an outsider--when in Wales. Ho calls into question conflicting loyalties and how, no matter how much we want to pigeonhole and scapegoat, it is not as simple as pointing a finger at “the other.”
Although at times the narrative gets bogged down in heady language and convoluted plot twists, Davies expertly picks up on the tacit codes and cultural innuendo of the British, Irish, and Germans, creating a multi-faceted novel bursting with lucid imagery of wartime Wales. The Welsh Girl is at once a love story and a war story. Ho has the rare ability to simultaneously engage the intellect and touch the heart.