Peter Ho Davies - The Welsh Girl

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A study of metaphor and prisoners in The Welsh Girl

Jan 13, 2008
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:If you want obscurity, here you go!

Cons:What was the point, exactly?

The Bottom Line: Wandering, slow paced novel that tries really, really hard to be engaging, but fails.

Sometimes, when a book keeps appearing as 'recommended' to me, I give in to the urge and decide to try it on. Sometimes it fits, more often than not, it's a awkward pull, tugging and twisting to get it around the bumps and curves. So it was with Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl.

Set in the waning days of World War II, nearly the entire story takes place in the Welsh village of Cilgwyn. Before the 1930's it was a mining town, men labouring and sometimes dying to hew slate for roofing tiles. But then there were strikes, then the depression, and finally the war, and now, there's only old men and women left. Even in a place as remote as this, change is coming.

The novel opens with Rotheram, a refugee from Germany, who works with the British trying to glean information and confessions from the Nazi soldiers that have fallen into British hands. He's fairly good at it, and now he has been sent to Wales to help determine if a very important prisoner is sane or not. He only has a few days to make a determination, and his encounters with the captive as just as stressful for him as it is to the man he is questioning.

On the beaches of Normandy a Wehrmacht corporal surrenders when his pillbox is attacked by a British soldier with a flamethrower. It's not much of a choice -- either give yourself up or be burnt alive. Along with his fellows, Karsten finds himself transported to England, then to the distant village of Cilgwyn.

And in Cilgwyn is Esther Evans, a local girl of seventeen serving up drinks in the local pub, trying to help her widowed father out as they struggle to keep the family sheep farm going. When a British soldier takes advantage of her, Esther starts to question her identity and as the act begins to have consequences, she finds herself in an ever decreasing trap.

How these three people intersect in their lives is the meat of this rather plotless novel. We only get to see them come together at inadvertent points, but see their innermost thoughts as they endlessly question the reality around them as Germany falls to the Allies and the war draws to a close. Mercifully for the reader, there are some very vivid descriptions of life in Wales, especially when it comes to the rearing of sheep, life in a POW camp, and some interesting bits about how much it matters if we belong to a group or not.

To say that I was bored out of my wits with this novel was an understatement. While I can appreciate Mr. Davies' use of language and metaphor -- water, sex, and language is everywhere -- this novel just meanders along, pretty much like a lone ewe on a mountainside without a shepherd or dog to keep it in line. By the end, I was just glad that it was over, and I found the use of an actual person in history to be one of the most useless plot devices I've come across in a long time.

Indeed, Mr. Davies seems to have his tongue in his cheek throughout the novel. I can almost see the smirk there, crowing See how clever I am? Ha, ha, fooled you into thinking this was going to be a real story. When I finally got the end of this one, I asked myself, that's it? That's all? and was ready to hurl the book at the wall in disgust.

Yes, I got the point of this one, and all I can say is that it's a snoozer. I tend to have this problem with books that appear on the best seller lists, or those nominated for literary awards (this was long-listed for the Booker Prize). At times they seem to be so obtuse and dense that I either fall asleep, or give up. And I suspect that quite a few people do the same -- somehow, when something comes across as 'acclaimed,' we have this fear that we'll be viewed as a knuckle-dragging Visigoth if we don't nod right along with the rest of the flock and say, Yeah, it's a great book! I didn't like this one, while I could really appreciate the setting, and some of the politics and language, it's a novel that tries to be too clever for its own good.

Me, give me a whacking good adventure or love story or something where there's a plot. Sure, it may mark me as a light reader, but at least I'll be amused. Which is what I wasn't with this dull, rather bleak, character study.

For those who really like to torture themselves, there's a list of questions in the back for reader's groups. Only for the severely masochistic reader.

Two and half stars at best.

The Welsh Girl
Peter Ho Davies
2007; Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company
ISBN 0-618-91852-3

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