Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sure, I Know the Queen, June/July 2008

By Jodie

A quintessential British summer is what we’re having in England right now. Forget all those tv images of strawberries at Wimbledon and the false expectations books like ‘Brideshead Revisited’ will have nurtured, here in the Midlands we’re all dressed in jumpers as we experience a typical British summer. Gallons of rain, or as one weather presenter put it rain which “ we need in summer to keep those reservoirs topped up”, cold temperatures and even a bit of sleet is what we’ve got. Meanwhile topical programs are running slots about how we don’t wear enough sun cream making us all feel as if we’re delusional and the rain is only in our minds.

Still with the rain keeping us indoors during the largest concentration of Bank Holidays that we get all year there is always an excuse to pick up a big British book. My favourite this month, The Welsh Girl’ by Peter Ho Davies is set in Wales and uses history to illuminate problems that are still confusing modern Britain. How do we form a national identity we can be proud of without shaping it around hatred of other countries? Is Britain a cohesive nation or still separate countries unfortunately conjoined and should we want to be one nation at all?

This book deserves to be analysed as it deals with enormous issues like shame and nationalism while still creating a potent story that is not distracted or troubled by these themes. Peter Ho Davies writing is gentle but avoids flounce or purple prose when describing the beautiful Welsh countryside. His main characters are described sharply with minimum physical description. Readers may come away from the book feeling they don’t know what Karsten or Esther look like but a strong picture still emerges as the author acquaints you with the essence of his main characters in short, bold lines.

‘The Welsh Girl’ is set apart from the glut of books about World War II by its setting which allows the author to avoid simplistic framing of ideas about the injustice of shaming soldiers and enemies who turn out to be friends. Peter Ho Davies emphasises the fact that many Welsh people did not feel that World War II was a British matter but rather an English problem that they had been unwillingly dragged into to make up numbers. He reminds us that although it suited the government to talk about Britain as a united nation during the war the country was still divided by national prejudices and genuine grievances. The Welsh people in Davies mining town do not view the English who arrive in their town as heroes because they are sappers involved in the war effort, they are still detested and hardly tolerated. When the main Welsh character, Esther has an English boyfriend she has to hide it as if she were dating a Nazi. In turn the English do not see the villagers as equals and prove this by contemptible actions early in the book.

The majority of the book focuses on Esther, a young Welsh barmaid desperate to escape the confines of her village and Karsten a member of the German army. Both want to escape their nationalities as they feel they do not fit somehow but at the same time they each feel a strong sense of identity. Karsten misses the countryside around his mother’s pension and feels a strong urge to join the hard core of Nazis who drill even when captured. Esther loves her father’s flock and feels the bonds of ‘cynefin’, a mystical instinct that keeps the ewes from straying, attaching her to the village. Still neither character naturally conforms to what their countrymen expect of them so Esther and Karsten are forced to make some pretence at other people’s idea of normality in an effort to avoid isolation but they can not change their true natures. Each reaches the same resolution, gaining a sense of empowering pride and forging new definitions of their nationality so they can survive and live peacefully but they do this in different ways. Much is sacrificed but much is gained.

Both characters are used to explore ideas about shame as well as nationalism but remain deftly described characters in their own right. The way that Nazi nationalism is compared to Welsh nationalism is a brave idea to express and another original facet of the novel. By specifically comparing the barbaric form German nationalism took with the extreme arguments of Welsh nationalism Davies takes the reader back to history class and shows that there were reasons why ordinary German citizens supported the Nazi party. By showing that circumstances, coupled with persuasive, historically logical argument and propaganda led to genocide in Germany he cautions against nationalistic argument. Then by explaining how circumstances, such a loss of mining jobs and logical arguments, for example Esther’s father’s speech about the English definition of the term ‘welshed’, created intense nationalistic hatred in Wales Davies instructs readers not to think of Nazi Germany as an isolated phenomena. Although he is specifically looking at nationalism in Wales he is counselling other countries to avoid supporting ideas that produce national rivalries.

Despite Davies tendency to produce stereotypical secondary characters such as Esther’s stern, sheep rearing father and Rhys, the sensitive and naïve boy next door, this book should receive praise as the first novel of a writer who will surely develop.

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