The Welsh Girl
A good case could be made for regarding World War II as anchored to temporal chronology, and yet, by the larger-than-life emergence of its leaders and campaigns, the war resists boundaries. The archive is inexhaustible, the tide of Holocaust memory alone, oceanic. In astonishing ways, such cataclysmic events change not only history but also the geography of individual minds.
As World War II recedes in time and its survivors dwindle, patriotic movies like The Longest Day (1962) and They Were Expendable (1945) seek to keep alive Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” reminding viewers and readers how hallowedand halo-edthe “good war” was compared to any since. The novelists who chronicled that warsuch as Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, and James Jonesleft a distinguished legacy. In recent years, several novelists not alive in the 1940’s are reviving, reinventing, and (most crucially of all) rescuing World War II from the overlay of history. Peter Ho Davies is one such writer. The Welsh Girl is his first novel. Davies, born in Wales of a Welsh father and a Malaysian Chinese mother some two decades after the war, is not interested in the conflict itself. Although he sets The Welsh Girl in the region of North Wales called Snowdonia during the time of the Allied landings in Normandy and employs military artifacts and at least one historical figure from the war, he is much more concerned with the split between local and national identities, between personal history and history itself as it plays out on the world stage.
For his debut novel, Davies utilizes a convention of stories from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) to Sebastian Brant’s Das Narren Schyff (1494; Ship of Fools) and Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables (pr. 1954)a fixed arena in which persons who would not ordinarily meet can be gathered together: an ocean liner, an inn, or, as here, a prison camp. The author chose Cilgwyn, a hamlet in North Walesnot only because young evacuees from London, for safety’s sake, have been interned there but also because the town has lately been filled with sappers, English soldiers who are building a mysterious new camp against the hillside. Germans who surrendered during the invasion will be imprisoned there. Esther Evans, the seventeen-year-old title character, lives on a farm with her father, Arthur. He, in common with most of the townspeople, is passionately opposed to “Churchill’s war.” He looks no further than his sheep for a guiding philosophycynefin, a Welsh term embracing his flock’s unerring sense of where they belong, their home turf. It is a word for which, he boasts to the recalcitrant Esther, the empire-building British have no equivalent. “But how do the new-born know?” she asks her father after her mother’s early passing. “The males teach each other,” he replies. Esther knows the wethers (males) are sold for meat each year. Whatever was passed downhowever cynefin was preservedshe knows it had to be from mother to daughter.
Cynefin becomes Davies’s dominant metaphor. This is not so dramatic until the second half when the other two young protagonistsKarsten Simmering,...
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