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Thursday February 23, 2017
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Peter Ho Davies

 

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Although The Welsh Girl is framed by a verifiable historical presence — Rudolph Hess in his final months before being sent back to Germany to be tried at Nuremberg — the focus of most of the book is on Esther, an independent-minded rural girl on the cusp of adulthood, a shepherd's daughter who is the barmaid at a village pub somewhere in the hills of northern Wales. History, in the form of the war, has intruded into lives that had previously been shaped by the seasons or, at most, by union activity at a local quarry. The army is constructing a mysterious camp a few miles from town that slowly reveals itself as a prison for German POWs. Once it opens for business, we are introduced to the second major character, Karsten, a German soldier captured in his bunker above the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. Without giving too much away, it is enough to say that the major plot turns on the improbable love that grows between these two people.

But all that says nothing about the nuances of this novel, and those quiet small details of place and personality are where The Welsh Girl achieves its scope and its reality. Whether he is describing the hesitant emotions of people first speaking uncertainly through the barbed wire of a prison or the details of farm life — the smell of sheep or the sound of milk hitting the bottom of the pail early on a cold morning — Ho Davies creates the historical moment with an exactness that seems the perfect mirror of the story he tells. I could pick out any number of moments to illustrate this carefulness, but here is a small scene from Karsten's attempt to escape from his Welsh prison that shows something of his author's attention:

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