Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl

A few weeks ago I was at the Peace Corps office to do something (pee in a cup, probably) and another volunteer gave me The Best American Short Stories 2001. That I consider getting a ten-year-old anthology a coup is a sign of where I’m at in life right now. Peter Ho Davies has a story in it, and it was one of those moments of (John Cusack, John Cusack – when I lose my English I retain visual cues) serendipitous reading that I realized after reading his author notes that I also had found his novel The Welsh Girl. Things like this never happen to me in Macedonia.

Peter Ho Davies’s novel The Welsh Girl is an expansion of his story “Think of England,” one of the best from The Best American Short Stories 2001. Davies’s story, about a Welsh girl whose schoolgirl English has gotten her a job serving soldiers the “English” side of a bar in her town during World War II, works better than many stories in the anthology because it never strives too hard to force the reader to a conclusion.Davies suggests the oddness of Esther’s position and the ways her Welsh background colors her view of the war; which isn’t to say that she doesn’t want the English to win, rather that her feelings about seeing them in her town are mixed. Despite this she has a romance with one of the English soldiers, a sapper named Colin. Where the story ends, with Esther’s rape, is where the novel begins to build, as the (slightly edited) story makes up the first two chapters of The Welsh Girl.

For his novel Davies focuses on the mysterious work of the English sappers that is mentioned in the story. The sappers are building a POW camp, and Davies introduces one of the POWs, Karsten, as a counterpoint to Esther’s voice in his novel.

As you might gather from the way that Davies centers his novel around the lives of people living in the midst of England who are not themselves English, what he is interested in here are the ideas of place, roots, the formation of self-identity and national identity. Esther, despite her skill with the English language and her flirtation with the English Colin, is fiercely protective of her Welsh roots. Her father, despite understanding English, rarely speaks it. Jim, a nine-year-old English evacuee who lives with Esther and her father, is never able to fit in with the local boys despite his best efforts to impress them. Karsten, the German POW, chose to surrender rather than to fight to the death for Germany, a point of his story he is, for much of the novel, incapable of admitting to his mother, who has made her own stories about his situation. Rotheram, an intelligence officer for the British who was born in Germany to a Jewish father, is often identified as a German Jew by the British and Germans, despite his refusal to accept that label.

Davies peoples The Welsh Girl with characters all intent, to some degree or another, on exploring their own cultural and national histories. From this he’s built a good story, but never one that illuminates the questions of identity he seeks to explore. Davies’s prose is unadorned, rarely making an explicit approach to these questions of identity. This prose style works to the benefit of his novel’s plot – The Welsh Girl is a quick and enjoyable read – but it also has the effect of keeping to the surface at points where Davies could have delved deeper.

The Welsh Girl is a pleasurable read, especially for the interactions between Esther, Jim and Karsten, which largely take place through the fence of the POW camp, but not one that lends any new insight to the way we form our ideas of ourselves and our nations.

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My opinion of this novel was very similar to yours when I read it a few years ago, after it was longlisted for the Booker. I wanted to love it, but ended up feeling like it didn’t really take things far or deep enough. Still, definitely an enjoyable read.

Comment by nicole

I’ve never read this one. I thought about it several times, but then my sister told me it was the first book she actually literally almost threw across the room in frustration, she hated it so much. I suppose I should try it for myself instead of relying on her reaction, but I can’t help but let a reaction that strong influence me!

Comment by Erin

I definitely didn’t hate it…actually, I’m surprised it could pull such a strong reaction out of someone. (That isn’t saying anything good about the book, is it?) But it’s not a novel I’d recommend over the zillions of other worthy novels, unless you happen to be going to a beach or you want a read that is fairly respectable without forcing you to think too much.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

It sounds like the story is the thing to read and not the novel.

Comment by Christine

It seems like a lot of short stories have been pushed into novel form lately. I just finished Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, the first chapter of which was published in The New Yorker. Like you, I found that much past the first chapter barely scratched the surface. There were so many ideas and characters introduced that it just felt like he was trying too hard to expand on a popular story. I did enjoy the book, but for me I prefer many authors’ short stories. Sometimes it’s better to be left with a tightly written story than one that goes on without delving any deeper.

Comment by Jenna

[…] – A Wild Sheep Chase (05/31/11) Sarah Dessen – What Happened to Goodbye (05/29/11) Peter Ho Davies – The Welsh Girl (05/28/11) Elizabeth George – Missing Joseph (05/26/11) Sue Grafton – “A” […]

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