anti-Semitism, belonging, book review, historical fiction, Holocaust, Jews, literary fiction, national identity, nationalism, North Wales, Peter Ho Davies, prisoners-of-war, romance, Rudolf Hess, tropes, World War II
Review: The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 333 pp. $10
For Esther Evans, seventeen, June 1944 in Cilgwyn, her village in North Wales, brings sights and sounds of the wider world she dreams of: BBC broadcasts, radio performers from London, English soldiers building an encampment. Living with her sheep-farmer father, who’s a Welsh nationalist, and an ill-tempered young evacuee, Esther has little to excite her except her job at the pub, where she rubs elbows with “foreigners,” including the English corporal with whom she’s stepping out. Don’t tell Dad.
Meanwhile, Karsten Simmering is taken prisoner defending a Normandy beachhead on D-Day. He doesn’t know what to think of himself for surrendering; his fellow prisoners, neck-deep in admiration for the Führer and certain of final victory, shame him for it, conveniently forgetting that they too put their hands up.
You know that Esther and Karsten are destined to cross paths, so you can guess that the encampment being built is for prisoners of war. Their relationship is an intriguing premise, and Davies shapes it well, conveying alliances and resentments with subtlety and aplomb, whether in Cilgwyn or the prison camp. He also colors his narrative with wistfulness, desire for escape, and search for a comfortable, fitting definition for the word nation, which several of his characters seem to lack.
I do question how Karsten speaks such fluent English. I also dislike the unmentionable trope that changes Esther’s path, both for itself and its predictability and borrowed from a humorless Victorian novelist (the offending work even rates a mention). But at least Davies makes it his own.
A chief attraction here is the prose, as with this vivid, emotion-laden description of Karsten’s barracks at the camp:
The hut stinks of men, of sweat and feet and damp wool and arseholes, and he rolls over to catch the sporadic scent of the sea. He can make out the smell of the damp trees on wet days, or of dry heather on fine ones. . . .The evenings, once it gets too gloomy to play football, once the dusk deepens and the white dots of sheep on the hillside vanish, are a slow, anxious prelude to this confinement. It makes him feel like a punished child . . . sent to bed early, and he dreads the winter when the days will get shorter and they’ll be locked in even earlier.
Unfortunately, Davies buries the Esther-Karsten narrative under a subplot connected to it only vaguely through the nation-belonging theme, an infelicitous addition at best. The novel begins with Joseph Rotheram, a British intelligence officer of German birth, assigned to observe and question the infamous Rudolf Hess. Hess, Hitler’s righthand man until 1940, when he flew an airplane to England, has spent four years under heavy guard. The Allies contemplate war-crimes trials, at which Hess would be a star defendant. Yet he claims amnesia, and no questioner can penetrate that mask.
Rotheram hates his assignment, especially for the reason he’s there: he’s considered Jewish, an identity he hotly (and accurately) denies, since his mother is Christian. But his superiors insist on saying he is, and they suppose that Hess will detect his “race” and react, whereupon they’ll have their prisoner in a bind. What an anti-Semitic trope, heightened when Rotheram’s officer comrades speak as if he has no country, only a tribe.
Davies knows how to set a scene, and he’s imagined a couple notable confrontations between Rotheram and Hess, especially during a screening of Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous propaganda film. It’s like Hamlet’s play within a play, hoping to catch the conscience of the king.
But to wade into anti-Semitic tropes requires insight, and Davies’s narrative suggests he knows little or nothing about Jews or Judaism. Rotheram’s Jewish only to the extent that others think he is and scorn him for it; he has no thoughts about that identity or his family’s past, other than rejecting it. You might as well say the Welsh characters are Welsh only because the English make bigoted jokes about them.
Toward the novel’s end, Rotheram starts thinking like his anti-Semitic superiors: “The Jews, he knew, had no homeland, yearned for one, and yet as much as he understood it to be a source of their victimization, it seemed at once such pure freedom to be without a country.” I suspect Davies has no idea his character appears to find liberation in thousands of years of expulsion, enforced statelessness, expropriation, and murder, justified by the slander that Jews owe allegiance to no country.
A critic quoted on the jacket flap praises Davies’s “all-encompassing empathy.” Not quite.
To my fellow historical novelists, please: If you must write about the Holocaust, make sure you treat your Jewish characters as full people. Please don’t deploy them like paperweights to keep themes or plot points from blowing away. Tropes and stereotypes hurt.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.