The Welsh Girl

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2007, 12:00am

The Welsh Girl

by Peter Ho Davies

Sceptre, HK$214

Peter Ho Davies' writing has been greeted with acclaim and awards for more than a decade, yet until publishers battled it out for the rights to this debut novel, extracted in Granta in 2003, he had published only short fiction.

In a remarkable achievement the 41-year-old British-born son of a Welsh father and Chinese mother built his reputation on two prize-winning short story collections: The Ugliest House in the World (1998) and Equal Love (2000).

Since moving to the US in 1992 for graduate study in creative writing (he now teaches a graduate writing programme), he has won fellowships including a Guggenheim, been anthologised in such collections as Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and in 2003 was named by Granta as one of 20 best young British novelists.

All of this places considerable weight of expectation on Ho Davies' shoulders with the publication of The Welsh Girl. But he doesn't disappoint. This is a dense, vivid story set in a Welsh village during the second world war, unafraid to tackle difficult themes - patriotism, loyalty, identity (personal and national) - unfolding against the backdrop of a harsh physical and human landscape.

The 'girl' of the title is 17-year-old Esther, the daughter of a shepherd who longs to escape the northern Wales village. But she's raped and made pregnant by one of the British soldiers there to build a German prisoner of war camp.

One of those POWs, Karsten, speaks a little English and forms an unlikely bond with Esther. Karsten, too, knows about involuntary surrender and powerlessness, having surrendered to the British forces in France to save his men. But he's now seen as a coward by those who fought to their last bullet. And he fears that's how his mother will think of him.

The villagers are fiercely nationalistic, yet theirs is Welsh nationalism. The English, long their enemy, are now their allies and the 'real' enemy is within, behind the wire.

Esther, who speaks English, which she hoped would help her to a new life, can communicate with the newcomers, unlike many of the Welsh-speaking locals. Communication - the nature of and barriers to it - lies at the heart of this book and in his prologue Ho Davies introduces a character who will later be sent to Esther's village.

Rotherham, a German Jew who has never felt Jewish and fled the Nazis at his mother's insistence, is now an interrogator, sent to interview Hitler's deputy, Rudolph Hess. (Hess, who flew to Britain, was for a time held in a Welsh safe house). They share an unlikely bond, Hess tells Rotherham. Are they who they think they are, or who others judge them to be?

The Welsh Girl unfolds slowly and thoughtfully. It provokes contemplation of what it means to belong, of the relationship between place and identity, of duty and the nature of dishonour and victory. It's sad yet uplifting, beautifully written and richly layered, offering much to contemplate.