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CYNEFIN (Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl)

The Welsh Girl has been following me around. Even before I finished the book, I found myself thinking about it in the same way a tune runs unbidden through your brain. I’m still fascinated by the meaning of the title of this piece, but I’m not going to explain it here. You’ll have to read the book to get it.

It’s said that there are often writers who are  novelists, others who are short story writers, and that the crossover can be difficult. It’s also said that Raymond Carver tried all his career to write a novel and couldn’t do it. Peter Ho Davies, a celebrated author of short stories for whom this is his first novel, doesn’t have that problem.

A friend of mine has been highly infatuated with Davies ever since she met him in a workshop a few years ago. I’ve admired him as one of the better short story writers around, but never been enthralled. That’s changed.pastedGraphic.pdf

I believe Davies’ long stint in a medium where every second counts contributed to the excellence of The Wesh Girl. Nothing is wasted. Not a character, not a description, not a rumination. And it adds up to a beautiful whole.

The Welsh girl in question is Esther Evans, a seventeen-year-old who feels stuck in her village but feels destined for a wider future. Others see her as a potential globetrotter, too. But there’s this war thing. The action begins just before D-Day, and in short order, the world comes to her before she has a chance to leave. First there’s an English adolescent evacuee (two, actually), then an English sapper, then a bunch of German POW’s, then a German Jew sent to interrogate the POW’s. There’s also collection of other characters who never would have come near the village but for the war. Esther’s yen for the exotic gets her in trouble even before the English army infests the countryside, and the complications get even more complicated afterwards.

Though this is unquestionably Esther’s book, she shares main billing with two other primary characters–one of the POW’s and the aforementioned German Jew. Each of them, interestingly enough, has lost a parent. Each of them has a question of honor to settle. Each of them has at least one identity problem to deal with. Such dilemmas are shared by various of the less major characters as well. Putting the layers on the onion, the individual crises are reflected by questions of German, Welsh, English, and Jewish nationalism and cultural identity. (You didn’t know about Welsh nationalism? I didn’t much either till I visited a few years back. I can attest to the continuing truth of the hostilities reflected in the book.) We even get to spend some time with Rudolf Hess, and the conversations with him provide both a psychological and an historical dimension that is not only interesting in itself but informs–even transforms–the thematic and dramatic texture of the novel. (In fact, the interrogation scenes, especially those with Hess, carry such a load of philosophical and historical material so suggestive and challenging of thought and feeling that they bear a good deal of thought and discussion in and of themselves.) Thus does Davies masterfully mold macrocosmic chaos into a comprehensible artistic whole.

We sometimes see the same events through different eyes. Sometimes we see one part of a story sequence through one pov, then the next part through another. One character leaves the book for over two hundred pages. I was anxious about where he was, relieved to see him return. Thus, not only is the action itself suspenseful, but the very structure of the book creates its own suspense in somewhat the same way a mountain creates its own weather.

Davies spends a great deal of time in the minds of his characters, but every moment moves the story. One of the complaints I have about novelists such as Ian McEwen and Richard Ford, is that they sometimes get self-indulgent about their characters’ pondering and wander around through their thoughts, feelings, and recollections to the extent that the books lose dramatic tension. Not so with The Welsh Girl. There’s always something that’s happening, has just happened, is about to happen, or seems about to happen, which is sometimes just as good.

My only general quibble, aside from a couple of specifics that I can’t discuss without spoiling the first-time reader’s experience, is that Davies’ characters too often have attacks of delayed intelligence. They go through a scene, then later in their thoughts attach meaning to the events or to their response to the events so that the author can rather too obviously insert his comments on the situation. It’s minor, but a little annoying, rather like Cormac McCarthy’s habit of introducing his similes with “like some [atavistic mammal, e.g.].” I set aside a few passages to quote for examples, but they all give up too much plot for the initiate, so I hope I’ve been clear enough about what I mean. If not, well, again, you’ll have to read it yourself.

The Welsh Girl is on one level a solid wartime romance. Nothing experimental or groundbreaking about its structure or language. However, its historical, mythical, and personal layers are so closely woven, so lend meaning one to the other just as different-colored threads add dimension to a fabric, that it had me looking for symbols that weren’t there. I kept wanting Esther to somehow echo the tale of the biblical queen, a secret Jew, who saves her people. However, the parallel simply isn’t there. I’m satisfied, though, with the more mundane idea of a connection with the movie/swimming star Esther Williams, who represents that wide, romantic world that Esther aspires to. There’s still plenty of resonance in the Shakespearean allusions (and other literary and historical references I doubtless missed) to lend the novel a glow of meaning far beyond the excellent surface tale.

This is my second WWII POW novel in as many months. Maybe the debut of Ken Burns’ latest is having a sub rosa impact on my reading life. I understand The Welsh Girl was on the long short list for this year’s Booker prize, but didn’t make the short-short list. I’ll be interested to see what beats it. I certainly consider it better than anything I’ve read by the noted Booker celebrity Ishiguro.  Maybe I should get on that committee.

At any rate, I’m thankful to Davies for writing the book and to my friend for putting me on to Davies. One of this–or any–year’s top reads.


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