When Peter Ho Davies (the name is explained by his mixed Chinese and Welsh parentage) was named in Granta Magazine in 2003 as one of the best young British novelists, he had published only two collections of stories. It’s just as well then, that now the novel finally has come along, it has all the qualities necessary, if there’s any justice*, to make it a sure fire modern classic. And I’m not just saying that because I was seduced by the beautiful cover (although: of course).
It manages this through a very leisurely telling – the plot doesn’t really get going until around page 200 – of a story with three complementary characters which allows for rich themes to texture the book, betraying its unaffected style. Those themes are primarily of honour (“Blokes! ” says one character. “Sensitive about their bloody honour as any girl about her virtue!”) and belonging (“…to escape all those debts and duties, the shackles of nationalism … it seemed such pure freedom to be without a country”).
And Ho Davies comes at them from every angle. The bulk of the book is set in a remote village in north Wales during the Second World War. Locals there, who need no encouragement to hate the English, are incensed that a camp for German Prisoners of War is opened in their midst. A young barmaid, Esther Evans, listens to them, and while “proud of her Welshness … yearns to be British.”
This corner of north Wales feels such a long way from the centre of life, from London or Liverpool or, heavens, America. But nationalism, she senses, is a way of putting it back in the centre, of saying that what’s here is important enough.
Meanwhile, one of the German prisoners, Karsten Simmering, is wracked with guilt – and despised by his comrades – for having surrendered his men on D-Day, trapped in a bunker when “the first bright spear of the flamethrower lanced through the firing slit, boiling across the ceiling.” He wonders how to write to his mother, whether how much her relief that he is safe will be diminished by the knowledge of his ‘cowardice,’ and he strikes up an uneasy friendship with an evacuee boy, Jim, who is staying in Esther Evans’ home.
The final thread is Rotheram’s, a German Jew who escaped before the war and now works for British Intelligence. He is sent to Wales to interrogate fleed Nazi Rudolf Hess, and has his own issues of belonging and identity (“I used to be a German but now I’m just a Jew”). Hess mocks the troubled English relationship with Wales:
“It seems a peculiarly apt place for my confinement. Isn’t Wales where the ancient Britons retreated to? When the Romans came, I mean. Wasn’t this their last redoubt? Aren’t these” – he waved an arm around, but the country was deserted apart from sheep and cattle – “their descendants? Your Mr Churchill, I gather, had plans to pull back here if we had invaded.” Hess smiled thinly. “We’d have made you all Welsh. Instead, it’s me who’s a little Welsh now.”
And so the scene is set for an exploration of the tensions between nations and people – English and Welsh, British and German, Jews and Nazis – and between individuals and their own expectations of themselves. It’s a measured and controlled performance – something akin to Ishiguro – and although the feelings and themes are placed lucidly and plainly on the page, Ho Davies’ elegant, delicate style and truthful submission to the reality of his characters means the ideas are never overbearing. Even when the pace is slow, it’s punctuated and lit up by superb set pieces – radio star Harry Hitch and his endless one-liners; Esther’s experience under the tarpaulin in a drained pool; Rudolf Hess’s encounter with a bull – and the writing is full of just-so phrases and whole pages of delight.
A single gutted house still stands at the end of one flattened terrace like an exclamation mark, and suddenly she sees the streets as sentences in a vast book, sentences that have had their nouns and verbs scored through, rubbed out, until they no longer make any sense. All those buildings, she thinks, I’ll never see. The boarding houses she’ll never sleep in, the cinemas she’ll never sit in, the cafes she’ll never eat in. And not just here, but in London, in Paris. She had so much wanted to see the world, and now, before she’s got any farther than Liverpool, she’s beginning to see how much of it is already gone.
The Welsh Girl is a traditional, unshowy novel which builds through a series of epiphanies in its busy last hundred pages into a slow burn triumph.