The Welsh Girl has been first and foremost, a surprise. Of the few books that I have read on the wars, Catch 22 included, this one dished up the unexpected in every turn. Peter Ho Davies's remarkable eye for detail conjures up wartime Wales so powerfully that one lives and breathes that tiny village, feels the empty hopelessness of Karsten's bunker in Normandy on D day, suffers along with Rotheram when he hurtles in that old car along those long winding roads and connects with Esther, the female protagonist on a completely different level.
Nothing is as it seems. True words aren't they? Reading The Welsh Girl this thought crossed my mind more than once. Even though the backdrop of the story is World War II, the author achieves his goal of making the reader almost forget the war at times. As if it were a far removed thing. So Rotheram felt. So Karsten felt. So Esther felt. The book focuses first and last on relationships forged and broken as a result of war. As the story progresses, the principal characters cease to exist in real wartime Europe. To them, the war seems like a distant pantomime, something they are not consciously connected to but at the same time, there is a sense of unease about the unknown. What will peace bring? What will defeat mean for Karsten, the frustrated Nazi prisoner of war? What does the war itself mean for Rotheram, the man who continually struggles for identity? Is he German? Is he Jewish? Or an exiled German Jew who became British? How does he deal with that sense of shame that clings to him that makes him deny vehemently his ancestry? How is the presence or absence of war going to change the disruption in Esther's life? What does it mean to her, when she is living in her own personal hell? What does she care? These are some of the questions the author handles with panache and helps you connect to what one might feel is the silly defensiveness of Rotheram, Karsten's eventual horror at having fought for that; Nazi Germany. And Esther, compromised Esther's struggle between necessity and conscience.
Inevitably, they care. The war directly or indirectly is the puppet master of their lives. Try as they may, through reason, choice or circumstance they circle back to it in a myriad subtle ways.
The Welsh Girl is not a heroic book. Great deeds are not done nor are great words spoken. Three very ordinary people are drawn together to one tiny village as the consequence of a far off war, one they fought for, fought against or simply stood by and watched. Their conflicts are no lesser than anyone else's. Their lives change forever, active participant or passive stander-by. And it all begins with the war.
A wonderfully direct take on just how the human heart knows to break barriers and feel and do things it could not have conceived before.