There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The Welsh are the Poles of the United Kingdom. Annexed by the English in 1284 after the death of the aptly named Llywelyn the Last, the Welsh have since endured centuries of imperialism and jokes about manly men, nervous sheep, and sheep-faced women. A Welsh nationalist movement took root during the 20th century, leading to the formation of an independent Welsh government in 1999, but the WelshnEnglish relationship remains fraught with mutual disdain: The two lands are like an estranged couple living in the same house, year after miserable year. Peter Ho Davies may be the ideal chronicler of the collective, large-scale antipathies that simulate the antipathies within a family; his new novel, The Welsh Girl, skillfully jousts with the competing, mirroring tensions of nationalism and familial loyalty in a World War IInera Welsh village. Davies is half-Welsh, half-Chinese; in his two previously published story collections, he seemed as much of an insider in mid-century north Wales as he did in modern-day Arizona, colonial Malaya, lower-middle-class England, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Patagonia. For Davies, we are all one family, and the world is our kitchen table—and all of Davies’ family stories end happily, if with enough underlying bitterness and regret to keep things interesting. The enemy is never the “other” but our own hesitancy in embracing the other. Davies’ one-world sensibility is both a strength and a liability in The Welsh Girl. The perspective of the novel’s central narrative is split between Esther (the Welsh girl of the title), a barmaid who is raped by an English soldier and must decide what to do with the baby, and Karsten, a German POW who is detained for a while in her sheep-herding village. The romantic story of their transcultural encounter is framed and paralleled by a plotline featuring Rotheram, a German Jew assigned to interrogate Rudolf Hess, who’s languishing in a Welsh farmhouse before his trial at Nuremberg. The best sections of the novel, which brim with evidence that Davies is an accomplished scholar of the human family unit, are those between actual relatives or people molded into close relations by the war: Esther and the evacuated English boy who moves in with her and her father; Karsten and his fellow prisoner; and Esther’s two mother figures—a jaded BBC actress and a local schoolteacher. The evolution of Esther’s relationship with her father, as she comes to discard his misogynistic form of Welsh nationalism and develop her own, anchors the narrative, and Karsten’s letters from and to his mother in Germany perfectly handle tones of guilt, shame, and affection. But The Welsh Girl pales when these family ties are background to the war scenes, which are insufficiently vivid. Davies doesn’t manage to make us feel like we’ve been shelled by faceless enemies, rounded up into cages, or beaten until our bones snap—his writing is too delicate, perhaps too kind, to deliver these harsh acts convincingly. He never dumps us as deep into the grime as the subject matter requires. Davies’ craftsmanship never abates; he simply seems more at ease with close-knit, actual families than with the divided family, writ large, that was Wales, England, and Europe after World War II.