Friday, 24 August 2007

Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl

Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl is a beautiful, haunting, deeply human book based on a certainty that whatever war or tragedy unfolds in the wider world, it is what happens to the individual human being that continues to be the measure of it. I’ve hesitated for days over what to write that is at once expressive of that and also acknowledges its imperfections. The story is fascinating and important, the setting believable and real, the characters (for instance, the raped girl who admits that whatever she feels about the Germans... seems pale compared to what she feels about Colin) are breathing, loving, suffering people portrayed with convincing motivation so that you learn much about their backgrounds without the text being filled in with blocks of exposition as clumsier writers can. They seem to have life that exists beyond the pages, there is something about our lives that they reflect back to us, they are a mirror on the world,

...this really is what Esther wants, what she dimly suspects they all want. To be important, to be the centre of attention

for these are lives that might have been ours, apart from the luck of circumstance. I found myself really sorrowing for Esther and the brave way she deals with the consequence of rape, Besides, what was it to be forced to do something she didn’t want to do? She’d been forced all her life by one circumstance or another- by poverty, by her mother’s death, by the needs of the flock and the novel shows war’s peripheral scenes in fully imagined awfulness, stepping far beyond what you expect of conventional and limited war narrative to show us scenes like POWs sending notification postcards home, and to examine how the limited choice in what they could say may have been a relief.

The novel is a romance but again, not in the conventional and limited sense. The place that characters belong to means as much to them as do those people whom they love, an exploration of which idea must lie behind the choice of title. In so much as you can say such a dense book is about something, it is about belongingness and place and how this might be connected to the relationships between parents and children. Davies describes (and then describes, and describes, which repetitiveness can get irritating, people being identified with sheep, too much so at times) the Welsh concept of Cynefin, the identification of the flock with its territory over generations, passing from mother to daughter. These concepts sre linked to an interesting discussion of nationality - Rotherham is called Jewish though Judaism is matrilineal and when his mother who was spat on in Berlin, it was because she was not German enough - she was Canadian. And Esther’s name itself is interestingly reminiscent of the Biblical character who risks her life to save her adopted father and the Jewish people, just as her father takes on the legendary name Arthur.

As important as parents are for the plot, it is motherlessness and fatherlessness that really drive it. We are very aware of Karsten growing up without a father and Esther without a mother, in his Vaterland and her Motherland. In these parallels you see them wedded to their countries despite the circumstances that bring them together. Esther’s father cannot survive without her, and Karsten appreciates his own position; Karsten’s father’s loss has always had about it an air of desertion as his mother sees it; he can’t desert her, too. And Esther ultimately makes meaning for her own life out of the place where she is from. She’s connected to her Welsh town to the place because of history, because of being female, matrilineage is what matters here, even the two male characters (Rhys, who dies, and Karsten, who returns to Germany) live with their widowed mothers. Meanwhile, Esther takes in Jim, the war child who becomes a link between them because he says he has no mother and she identifies with that -- although this turns out not to be true. One of the ways the novel deals with this theme is showing how an inability to express parental affection and loss could lie behind violent acts, with the war child being torn between being unable to admit he misses his father in front of the others, and unable to say he doesn’t for fear of seeming disloyal. Nationality is in every case shown as being less significant than the family and blood ties that prove where we really belong. And people's individual lives can step beyond all group expectation; despite the war against Germany, it is an English outsider who rapes Esther, a German outsider who saves the farm at the end.

One particularly beautiful feature of the novel is its insistence on the possibilities of language and the beauty of words. There is repeated wordplay with the word Welsh, and references to the differences between Wales and England that are perhaps most apparent in their separate languages. Explicitly, we are reminded of Welsh having once been banned in schools, that using English is beneath her father’s dignity and that the nationalist view of the war is that it’s an English war, imperialists, capitalist, like the Great War. The limitations of language are also canvassed. Esther, believing that rape must end in murder, struggles to come up with a word for what has happened to her until, pregnant, she acknowledges that she may have been raped after all -- she might die from the consequences of abortion or childbirth or, perhaps even more horrifyingly, from shame.

Later, Davies writes that it’s as if the language is coming to life, talking back to her in its slippery English tongue - when she thinks about Colin being captured and facing confinement. The word itself is a cell to her - I wonder how a man knows to write this!! Davies’ cleverness with certain words makes you hear them as though for the first time. We have pacifist with emphasis on FIST - the English word containing its own rebuke , Esther considering impregnable shore defences and her mourning sickness play on words when telling Rhys’s mother that the baby is his. This wordplay seems to acknowledge that many clich├ęs are rooted in a certain truthfulness -- universal life experiences (loss, desire) connect us together as human beings and despite the limited range of words we have in which to share them, are always unique.

The novel is beautiful and intimate and flawed. There is so much signification layered on top of their lives that sometimes the sheer meaningfulness imposed upon everything threatens to suffocate. The sections about Hess are the novel’s weakest points, and perhaps it’s a sign of the author’s trembling faith in the power of the personal story that he feels politically important characters are necessary to bolster it. Early in the book, Rotherham has difficulty believing it’s really Hess and though this acknowledgement does helps readers over disbelief too I’m not sure he is significant enough to the text for all this effort at suspending disbelief to really pay off. (Admittedly, his presence does allow for discussion of Nazi films which, as Hess says, were beautiful and which must have played some significant part in Davies’ research for the book). Another aspect of imagery that becomes irritatingly self-conscious is that of imprisonment, linked most obviously to the POW camp being built nearby. And there are more that a few instances where the author can’t resist spelling out something that an perceptive reader must realise (for instance, after describing how a sheep whose baby died adopts another when her own baby’s skin is wrapped around it, Esther asks has she deceived, or been deceived? Is she the lamb, the ewe, the shepherd?) Clues that she is pregnant (morning sickness, eating picked eggs) are very obvious and clumsy. Instances of overly drawn explanation multiply until by end of the novel, it feels like Davies wants to explain the entire war, describing the German feeling about power as perhaps it was luck, but once you have enough luck, it starts to feel like fate. Then by third last page when he says sheep have lived in Wales for hundreds of years, my margin notes argh, let it go. It really is too much. I hope Davies will be more confident and trust his readers more with his next book.

It is greatly to the book’s credit that although it suffers from these flaws, there is enough beauty and truth in it for them to be borne. It’s a meaningful war story and a thoughtful romance, (with Karsten, Esther is allowed to link sex with free choice, with desire, and above all with sharing -- they are both shamed and have surrendered, and find comfort with each other). I found myself being glad they had their moment together because this seems to provide some sort of solace in a world where tragedy is played out on all scales, from grand war narratives to the smaller tragedies, Esther’s mother never getting to the end of Middlemarch, a man who can’t remember when he last touched another live thing, even to what happens to the sheep. One of the most vividly realised moments to me was Esther’s heartbreaking resignation to being raped and pregnant, that In the meantime, there’s nothing to be protected from any more and realisation that she is as much a prisoner as anyone.

The idea of surrender is a continuing motif within the novel. Karsten himself, who has no choice between surrendering and death, faces the devastating realisation that their surrender wasn’t that one moment already past, at the mouth of the bunker, but somehow will go one and on. He wonders what more they’ll have to give up before it’s over. Everything but their lives, probably. It’s only in glancing back through the pages afterwards that I appreciate the fine imagination Davies has demonstrated in creating a world where this doesn’t happen. German POWs help rebuild and former enemies are kinder to each other than you expect. A question is asked, will all surrendered soldiers be traitors after the war, or just Germans? And the answer is, just Germans, and more than that, just human beings, living out their individual lives in the way that to them seems best. The novel is perfectly set in wartime where those great human experiences of love and loss are condensed into a smaller timescale. This to me is where its essential worth lies, in a portrayal of lived human experience that struggles towards the authentic. It is an important and beautiful book, and I am very moved by it.

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