Sunday, September 02, 2007

counting sheep

Some books stand out for how they make you think, some for how they make you feel. The Welsh Girl makes me feel like a child on a Sunday afternoon - stuffed full of meat and two veg, overdosed on gravy and crashed out in front of the telly. There’s nothing on the box but a black and white war movie and my mind screams ‘BORING’ but I feel myself hopelessly drawn in by the tale, despite the stiff upper lips and foolish costumes. Because while times and places change, people are people.

And people are what this novel is all about. The relationships between children and their mothers and fathers, between people and their birthplace and their country of origin. People dislocated by war, and people craving to break free from the limits of their roots.

All the characters and communities that Peter Ho Davies creates are peopled and alive, sparking with warm little details like the German POW who makes toy planes for the evacuee out of bed slats and bullet casings.

There is risk with any novel that adopts multiple narratives that each might be diluted by only claiming a share of the novel but this never seems to happen in The Welsh Girl. Each narrative - the surrendered German POW, the interrogator or the Welsh girl herself, Esther - seems to reinforce and elaborate on each other. This supportive narrative allows Peter Ho Davies to break through the barriers of enemy and friend, them and us -

‘She tries to decide how she feels about the Germans now. It seems important. She ought to hate them, she thinks, and she supposes she does, but she can’t quite muster the heat of anger. She doesn’t know them, after all; whatever they’ve done, it doesn’t feel like they’ve done it to her.’

I particularly enjoyed Esther’s struggles to find expression between two languages, each which seems to have a life and mode of thought of its own. She struggles to understand what happened to her in the abandoned swimming pool within the context of the word itself -

‘In the midst of it, yes, the word had filled her mind, buzzing and crackling like a lurid neon sign in a gangster picture. But not afterwards’

The novel seems almost faultless (incredible considering it’s his first), and every box ticked that ought to be. The prose is highly accomplished and vivid -

‘his nose as sharp as a beak and his cheekbones swept up like wings under his skin, as if his face were about to take flight.’

and I can see why all the reviews I’ve read speak so highly and tip the novel for the Booker shortlist at the least. It’s a well woven blanket, each thread handled with care and combined into a colourful pattern - but ultimately for me the blanket is a little too thick, a little too warm, and I am liable to find myself dozing beneath it, dreaming of sheep.

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