three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Welsh GirlSet in rural Wales toward the end of World War II, Peter Ho Davies’s first novel is a study of three characters whose lives intersect: 17-year-old Esther, who lives on a sheep farm with her father and moonlights as a barmaid; Karsten, the German POW held in a recently built camp just outside town; and Rotheram, a half-Jewish German working for the British Intelligence Service and sent to question Nazi fugitive Rudolf Hess. Pregnant from a violent encounter with a British soldier, Esther meets and falls for Karsten, who escapes the camp. Moving from one character to another, Davies examines how geography, love, honor, patriotism, and identity form a divisive, if very human, landscape.
Houghton Mifflin. 352 pages. $24. ISBN: 0618007008

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Ultimately, The Welsh Girl has the feel of an old fashioned love story set in wartime. Davies’s unsettling images underscore the horrors that men and women endure and accept as part of life during conflict." Evelyn Sharenov

Charlotte Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Peter Ho Davies’s remarkable first novel, The Welsh Girl, explores the distinctions between love and lust, allies and enemies, nationalism and love of country. … He draws a world with complex relationships, where love can overcome the worst of humanity, if only we’ll let it." Jean Blish Siers

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Davies’s novel is an ambitious, layered meditation on what it means to be from a particular place. … The Welsh Girl is a kaleidoscopic study of the clash between local and national identities; between personal history and ‘history’ as it plays out on the world stage. " Jennifer Egan

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Problems of belonging and identity infuse the book. Esther is a footloose soul unable to leave her hillside; Karsten is a German who looks to find his future in Wales; Rotheram doesn’t know what he is or where he belongs." Claire Dederer

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Because so little is known about Hess’ motives, he is an excellent subject for a work of historical fiction. Pairing him with an interrogator conflicted about his own identity and in denial about his Jewish ancestry is a masterstroke. But does that story belong in a novel about a shepherd’s daughter?" Jim Ruland

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"The ambitious nature of The Welsh Girl also turns out to be its weakness. In working to underscore the grander themes of nationalism’s crimes, the politics of language, and the moral incoherence of war, Davies sometimes strains toward the didactic." Gail Caldwell

Critical Summary

Peter Ho Davies’s two short-story collections, Equal Love and The Ugliest House in the World, met with critical acclaim, and reviewers generally enjoyed his first novel as well. Yet while they praised the book’s complicated character portraits and its complex themes, many felt that the Rotheram-Hess subplot, while fascinating, was tangential to the novel’s main triangle. And, despite the title, Esther does not appear to be the novel’s protagonist. Perhaps the troubles begin with the prologue, in which Rotheram appears after the events of the early chapters. He then disappears for a large section of the novel, thereby distorting its structure. All reviewers, however, admired the beauty of the prose and noted that the novel is worth reading for its exquisite sense of time and place.