Monday, 25 February 2008

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

Sceptre €??

THIS dazzling first novel uses the setting of the Second World War to question the validity of nationalism.

Welsh and German nationalism, anyway; it doesn't really address British nationalism.

Its other theme is shame: male and female shame, and the difference between them.

There's scarcely a man who can write about an attractive woman without imagining her pregnant, and so it is in this very male book.

Esther, the village beauty of a remote Welsh hamlet, must face the moral issues of an unwanted baby. In the end, it's a man who makes the decision for her.

Esther, though, is an axle on which the writer swings his story. At its true centre is the motherly German corporal who becomes the buff of his POW cellmates' fury because he was the first to surrender.

There is a fairly desultory subplot about Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess and his wartime flight to Britain.

The Welsh Girl is written in our time, in an Orwellian world in which Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo exist, yet the fiction is not shadowed by our foreknowledge.

Instead, it's somehow cosy, perhaps a distancing effect of the very adeptness of Ho Davies' writing. Everything is described; there are discoveries in every word and idea, crowding out the starkness of cruelty.

In the end, he concludes that the true love of country is that of the sheep for their ageless habitat, and it is through evoking this that the good German redeems himself.

Ho Davies is half Chinese Malayan, half Welsh. Born in Coventry a quarter-century after its wartime destruction, qualified in physics and English, he now directs the creative writing MFA programme in the University of Michigan.

It's a background that makes him a passionate outsider, an interesting viewpoint for a consideration of nationalism and provincialism.

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