September 24, 2007

Book review: "The Welsh Girl," by Peter Ho Davies

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The Welsh Girl
By Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin / ISBN: 978-0-618-00700-4

The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies

Regular readers know that CCLaP is spending the month looking at the various nominees for the 2007 Booker Prize; and those familiar with the prize know that the only books eligible for it are ones from the British Commonwealth, meaning that Booker nominees each year tend to be very British in tone (duh). In fact, I mentioned last week how it doesn't get much more British than nominee Mister Pip by New Zealander James Lloyd, but it turns out I was wrong; that where it truly, utterly cannot get more British is then with The Welsh Girl, by Welsh novelist Peter Ho Davies, a book so Angloriffic that you can already picture the delicate BBC teleplay that will eventually be produced of it, to the almost sexual delight of all those PBS-obsessed Anglophiles here in the States. I mean, it's a good book, don't get me wrong, one of those perfect hybrids of historical fiction, gooey romance, small-town whimsy and Celtic pride; but I'm telling you, if you're not asking for your biscuits and calling all your friends "guv'nor" by the time you're done, I'll eat a big plate of blood pudding and kidney pie!

Set in the fiercely independent British realm of Wales during World War II, The Welsh Girl in fact opens on the day before D-Day; the day that our titular hero, teenage barmaid Esther Evans, is date-raped by a young English soldier on the eve of being shipped off to Normandy, which Esther doesn't know whether to report or not, because she's not exactly sure what rape is anyway, plus it's sure to rile up the already high tensions among the Celtic-speaking nationalist locals, who resent all the English soldiers being in their village in the first place. And that, ladies and gentlemen, right off the bat tells you a lot about what this entire novel ends up being about; not just an examination of political realities for young, unmarried women in the mid-20th century, but also amongst the backdrop of conservative small-town life, where all aspects of existence are flavored by hundreds of years of off-and-on oppression by a domineering neighbor. This is a very Welsh book, and in fact is a big reason to even read it, is to get swept up in the soaring cliffs and pastoral landscapes, the mystical innate knowledge of sheep and the like. Reading the novel, you can almost hear all the librarians and history teachers in Wales having nocturnal emissions, as pleased as they undoubtedly are to have this new, very vibrant look at their country's past.

Because that's the second important thing to know about The Welsh Girl, that its historical setting of WWII was not just arbitrarily chosen but is integral to the plot; that the main story, in fact, revolves around a German POW camp being temporarily erected at the outskirts of this Welsh village, specifically to house whatever Nazis end up surrendering during the Normandy invasion, happening nearby over the next several weeks. It is as a matter of fact the most exciting thing to happen to the village in something like 400 years, and ends up flavoring nearly every aspect of life there -- from what the mischievous boys of the village do to get in trouble (with many of the boys of course not being true locals, but rather war refugees from London), to the relations between locals and the English MPs who all drink each night at the pub where Esther works, even the arrival of a BBC comedy duo who end up broadcasting their war-themed skits from the area. That's the other reason Welsh history teachers are undoubtedly having wet dreams these days, and I'm sure a big reason why the novel got a Booker nod in the first place; that it evokes the details of those times (ration cards, silk stockings, raid drills) so concretely as to almost transport you there at times.

Davies, in fact, walks a delicate tightrope here as he tells this particular story; because ultimately of course this is the story of a strong, independent girl, in a time when there were few options for such girls, and when they were generally looked down on for being strong and independent in the first place. It's a popular theme for stories in these enlightened times, but authors tackling such a subject have to be careful; make the character too successful and you're guilty of revisionism, of giving the story a happy modern ending that couldn't have actually happened back then, while make it too realistic and you remove that charming modern rooting for the character that contemporary readers want to have. Thankfully Davies here walks that tightrope, in that The Welsh Girl is sometimes very modern in nature (addiction, abortion, forbidden love) but always in a way that supports logic instead of defies it, and feels natural to the times in which the story is set. And, you know, thank God; because no offense to all you Booker lovers, but five novels in* I'm already getting quite tired of fey little overwrought plotlines that stretch the limits of reality almost to the breaking point. Are most Booker nominees like this every year? Seriously?

And then finally, as mentioned, The Welsh Girl contains a lovely little romance at the heart of the story as well, a slow-burning one between Esther and one of the young German soldiers being held at the prisoner camp, who of course is good-looking and sensitive and just a few years older than Esther himself, who can fashion toy airplanes out of spare camp items and has trouble understanding why so many people hate those wacky Jews, anyway. Which, let's face it, is about the farthest Davies stretches the limits of historical believability; but is also a necessity if you're going to convincingly "sell" a romance between a Brit and a Nazi during wartime to a modern audience, plus of course isn't that big a stretch if you know your history. (For those who don't know, even at its height only 25 percent or so of the German population were "officially" members of the Nazi party; the rest of the country simply tolerated the Nazis being in charge, the same situation you have now between most Americans and extreme conservatives.) In all honesty, the story definitely has to reach at points to shoehorn in such a romance, with you needing to believe in people acting in highly irrational ways at key moments in the plot in order for the whole thing to work; but this of course is the nature of a good love story, and it is these exact moments of high irrationality that we precisely hope for when reading a good romance. Davies definitely pulls it off here, but only in comparison to other love stories; those with a low tolerance for such stories in general may find such a thing grating in this case.

In general, I'd call The Welsh Girl very typical of all the Booker nominees I've now read; lightweight in feel, very British in tone, with a story that threatens to be forgotten mere months after reading it in the first place. It's not a bad book by any means, but not a memorable one either, and in fact makes me wonder just what happened with the Booker nominating committee this year, anyway. Are they just off their game a little in 2007? Or were there really so many crappy books this year that these are the best they can come up with? As always, I'll keep plugging away on the nominated books, and keep sharing my discoveries here.

Out of 10:
Story: 7.3
Characters: 6.9
Style: 6.8
Overall: 7.1

*Booker nominees now read: Mister Pip; The Reluctant Fundamentalist; today's book, The Welsh Girl; Consolation by Michael Redhill (not yet reviewed), and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (not yet reviewed). I'm still trying to track down Nikita Lalwani's Gifted, but unfortunately at that point will have then read all six of the 13 Booker nominees this year to be carried in the Chicago public library system, meaning that I will most likely not review the other seven. In fact, this has been a consistent complaint about the Booker this year from all kinds of camps, is the highly obscure nature of many of the nominees; of the 13 books comprising this year's long list, for example, only two have sold over a thousand copies. Seriously, there's more than a thousand people coming by this website every day; where's my freaking award?

Read even more about The Welsh Girl: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:08 AM, September 24, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |