Peter Ho Davies
A place and a time
by Keith Taylor
Just completing several years as director of the U-M graduate program in creative writing, Peter Ho Davies has shown his exquisite style and restless imagination in two very successful collections of short stories. In his debut novel, however, he returns to his native Wales, and his affection for the landscape and the people who live on it informs almost every page.
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:
He leaves the mountains and climbs down to the coast, one foot pulled after the other, not using the lanes but crossing the fields, pushing through clumps of sheep or cattle, once outrunning a bull, squeezing himself into hedges to sleep. In the darkness he feels the slope flattening, and an hour later he's on sand again. He hates the feel of it, the yielding.
As that kind of detail builds around the lives of these very sympathetic characters people sucked into the anonymous cruelties of history this novel becomes an unforgettable picture of a place and a time.
Peter Ho Davies reads from The Welsh Girl at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, February 15.
[Review published February 2007]