Tuesday, 17 June 2008

a sense of time and place

The Welsh Girl
by Peter Ho Davies

In his début novel Resistance, the Welsh writer Owen Sheers imagined a Wales occupied by Nazi troops and in one particular valley, deserted by its men, who have taken to the hills, it is the women who have to learn to live with the real meaning of occupation and the cost of survival. In Peter Ho Davies' own début there are German troops in Wales again, this time as prisoners of war, but these are still two cultures learning to live in close proximity and questions arise about loyalty, honour and identity. Whilst Sheers' novel had the advantages of immediacy and confrontation, Davies' novel creates an equally strong sense of place with subtly nuanced detail and beautiful structure. Both books provide a unique perspective on war and whilst Davies gets off to a slow start the three strands of his narrative come slowly together, the tension increasing between them as he ties up the loose ends.

The Welsh Girl of the title is Esther, a 17 year old growing up quickly whilst frighteningly naive about the world around her. Having turned down a proposal of marriage from local boy Rhys she is subjected to a violent assault from one of the English soldiers building a new camp nearby. In fact she is raped but she herself is confused by the nature of the attack.

If she had to call it anything, she thinks now, groping for the word, she'd call it a misunderstanding. He meant one thing, she meant another.

She will spend the rest of the novel dealing with the fallout from this event whilst at the same time looking after Jim, a young evacuee. For both of them, the building of the new prisoner of war camp brings the war very much to their doorstep, forcing them both to think honestly about the real differences between themselves and the men on the other side of the wire. For the whole village in fact, the arrival of first the English soldiers and then the new prisoners gives rise to different expressions of nationalism.

Rotheram is a young German in exile now working with British forces and sent to interrogate Rudolf Hess. The question: Is he sane enough to stand trial? Hess is quick to spot the Jewish heritage of Rotheram and so a dialogue starts between them about identity.

'We have something in common, you and I. The same dilemma. Are we who we think we are, or who others judge us to be? A question of will perhaps.' He glanced over Rotheram's shoulder, and then back, meeting his eyes. 'How can you hope to judge me, Captain, if you can't decide about yourself?'

The Hess episodes are a small part of the whole, bookending the narrative, but Rotheram will appear again to interview one of the German POW's being held in a new constructed camp. Karsten Simmering, having surrendered from his position during the D-Day landings, is subjected to abuse from his fellow prisoners as well as putting himself through the ringer.

It comes to Karsten slowly that their surrender wasn't that one moment already past, at the mouth of the bunker, but somehow will go on and on. He wonders what more they'll have to give up before it's over. Everything but their lives, probably.

From the camp the prisoners are watched by a group of local boys who are fascinated by these new arrivals. They grow in confidence, edging ever closer to the wire to hurl their insults and make fun of the internees. It is here that Karsten is able to befriend Jim, hoping to learn first of the all the name of the young girl he has seen him with. His first gift, a pair of planes, crudely crafted from bed slats with propellers made from gun casings are well received.

For a slow moment Karsten feels bereft...But when he sees the boy running uphill, the planes whipping over the long grass, banking around the tree trunks, sailing towards the crest, it comes to Karsten that this is what he has wanted all along, for the planes to go where he can't.

A moment of opportunism will bring all of these characters closer together and force Esther to make her biggest steps into the adult world. Crucial to this book is a single word that Esther's father teaches her whilst tending their sheep; cynefin, 'the flock's sense of place, of territory' This sense, passed down from mother to daughter (with male lambs being sold off it is the females that remain in place) is emblematic of what many of the characters realise during this turbulent period. Esther will come to realise that cynefin 'is the essential nationalism, not her father's windy brand, but this secret bond between mothers and daughters, described by a word the English have no equivalent for.'


John Self 18 June 2008 at 21:40  

Wonderful. This was one of my favourite books of last year.

William Rycroft 20 June 2008 at 15:43  

I keep thinking about. Surely a good sign.

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