Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Well Thumbed Book: The Welsh Girl

by Karen Adler

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies is one of those books that is capable of sparking a great debate among its readers over the motivations and actions of its characters.  The novel is set in a small town in World War II-era Wales, not an area known for its love of the English.  The townsfolk are none too pleased that a POW camp has been established nearby. The story is fairly simple: Karsten, a German prisoner in the camp, is tormented by his decision to surrender to the British forces and decides to escape.  When a Welsh girl, Esther, discovers a German soldier who has escaped from the POW camp, she must decide what to do.  

The novel is by no means just an adventure story of escaping prisoners of, war. Nor is it just a vehicle to play out the characters' ethical choices against the backdrop of war.  It does both these things, but the plot never runs away with the story, as is so often the case with thrillers. Davies takes the time to capture the texture and atmosphere of a little known time and place in this corner of Wales during World War II. 

It's unusual for me to be so taken with a book that doesn’t have a fast-paced plot. Rather, Davies’ rendering of his characters is what justifies this book’s place of honor on my bookshelf.  Even the minor characters are fully fleshed-out, so that the reader can see how they are torn between their conflicting loyalties.  There’s Esther’s father, a shepherd who’s no fan of the English; Rotheram, a Jewish English captain whose father is a German WWI hero; and Colin, an English soldier who has feelings for Esther.

Peter Ho Davies is a Welsh author who has written many award-winning short stories.  The Welsh Girl was long-listed for the Booker Man Prize in 2007.

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