Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl

[some spoilers]

Given the hype and prestige surrounding the Booker Prize, I suppose it’s only inevitable that we should see the advent of the Booker Prize Book. Not a book that wins the prize, you understand, but a book that seems to have been written for the prize, just as some movies seem made for the Oscars. You know the type – usually set in or around World War II and featuring a bleak countryside, a family (often missing at least one parent) scratching out a barren existence on a farm, a general air of sexual frustration, a main protagonist dreaming of escape from his / her small town existence, a colorful cast of villagers, some form of sexual assault or entanglement, guilt, shame, nationalism and / or faith, an unlikely friendship / love affair, partial redemption, epiphany, a sense of loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the finest novels of the last fifty years have been written around precisely these themes. Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl, however, reads like nothing so much as a haphazard amalgam of these stock elements, welded together with considerable skill but very little inspiration, to create a novel that is not so much bad as plain dull. It feels unfair to use the word formulaic for a book so painstakingly written, so rich in prose, but it’s the word that, reading the novel, comes most often to mind.

Set around the time of the Normandy invasion, The Welsh Girl weaves together three different stories (it would, wouldn’t it), each with its central protagonist. There’s Esther, the girl of the title, a nineteen year old growing up on her father’s sheep farm in a remote part of Wales, who is raped by an English serviceman, gets pregnant (surprise! surprise!) and spends the bulk of the novel not so much suffering as just being generally confused. There’s Karsten, a German soldier captured on D-Day and held captive in a POW camp next door to Esther’s farm, who not only speaks fluent English, but is also generous, good-hearted, noble, sensitive, skilled with his hands, kind to children, tall and very blonde – the perfect candidate, in short, to provide a love interest for Esther. Karsten’s great torment is that he surrendered to the Allies when he saw that he had no chance against them, a fact that causes the other POWs to deride him, and leaves him with an abiding sense of inadequacy and guilt. This, conveniently enough, provides the perfect dramatic opening for some transparent meditations on the code of male honor (a theme that blends nicely with the subtext of Welsh nationalism that runs through the book).

Finally, there’s Rotherham, an expatriate German now serving with British Intelligence, who has never considered himself a Jew (his mother is not Jewish), but is forced to flee Germany because he is branded one by the Nazis. When the book opens, Rotherham is ostensibly interrogating Rudolph Hess to ascertain whether the former Nazi second in command is indeed sane – a task for which his only qualification seems to be that he speaks German. In fact, however, he spends his time snapping at anyone who calls him a Jew and then falling into a spiral of misery and self-doubt. The man’s a walking identity crisis. And his entire story is easily the worst part of the book, a pointless, ridiculous addition that serves little purpose except to allow Davies to put in the obligatory Holocaust references and add more pathos to what is already a cliched and overdone book.

In fairness, Davies does have talent – the secondary characters, sketched for us in a page or two, have a warmth and a solidity that his main protagonists never achieve, and the writing throughout is extremely good, with the atmosphere of the Welsh countryside in those troubled, war-ravaged days evoked with great skill. It’s just that the plot of the book is bathetic and predictable, rife with illogic and easy coincidence, and the main characters never really win our sympathy because their trite lives seem to come straight from a story by Daphne du Maurier or Colleen McCullough. The end result is something that reads like an edgier, angrier adaptation of Mrs. Minniver. To Davies’ credit, he does try to compensate for the soppy excesses of the novel by throwing in a few surprises at the end, but the stern, aching realism of the last chapter can’t compensate for all the stock sentimentality that precedes it, and only serves to underline the futility and ordinariness of the book as a whole.

Overall, The Welsh Girl is a tedious, plodding book, more sentimental than moving,
that you should read only if you’re deeply passionate about Wales, or if you’re trying to wean yourself off Danielle Steele and read more ‘literature’.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-posted on 2x3x7]

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