Drinkers at a pub in Cardiff, South Wales, 1939

Main image: Felix Man/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies: an intimate portrait of love, loyalty and national identity

Peter Ho Davies’s 2007 Booker-longlisted debut novel explores conflicting notions of national pride and shame, belonging and alienation – and is firmly rooted in its landscape

‘TBR: The Booker Revisited’, is an editorial partnership between The Booker Prize Foundation and Lit Hub. Read more articles in this series here.

Written by Lucy Scholes

Publication date and time: Published

When the once-in-a-decade Granta Best of Young British Novelists list was announced earlier this year, it was noted with interest that the judges had expanded the parameters to include a couple of novelists who, although not technically British, currently call Britain home.  

Given the increasingly insular geopolitical landscape, a looser definition of national identity seems a welcome act of inclusivity and resistance, but – more pertinent to this series, which is a guide to some of the forgotten gems in the Booker archives – it also encouraged me to revisit Peter Ho Davies’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted debut, The Welsh Girl (2007).  

Four years prior to his Booker nomination, Davies – then the author of two short story collections, The Ugliest House in the World (1998) and Equal Love (2000) – made the 2003 Granta list. At this point, he’d been living in the United States for more than a decade and his work had been anthologised in various Best American Short Stories volumes, yet here he was being lauded as one of the most promising British voices of his generation. How apt, then, that his powerful Second World War novel – which won comparisons with the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as Michael Ondaatje’s Booker-winning The English Patient – was deeply engaged with notions of national pride and shame, belonging and alienation. 

It is 1944, and the titular 17-year-old Esther Evans lives with her father, Arthur, on a sheep farm in North Wales. Esther’s mother is dead, so during the day she keeps the house and helps out on the smallholding. For the last few months, ever since her birthday, she’s spent the evenings working as a barmaid at the local pub, The Quarryman’s Arms. She also looks after Jim, an evacuee from Liverpool; not that the little rapscallion needs much mothering, but someone has to keep an eye on him, especially when he gets into mischief. One such incident occurs early in the book when Jim and some other boys sneak into an abandoned holiday camp, recently requisitioned by the military for, as yet, undisclosed purposes. Some imagine it’s for hardy ‘alpine troops training in the mountains for the invasion of Norway’, others are hoping for an influx of Americans with ‘their ready cash’. The reality, however, is decidedly less romantic: German POWs. ‘And your lot thinking they was part of the war effort,’ derides Esther’s brutish beau, Colin, one of the English sappers who’ve been readying the camp.

Peter Ho Davies

The way in which Davies entwines nationalism and misogyny feels especially progressive. Sexual violence is just part and parcel of a bigger picture of subjugation and objectification

There’s a great deal of tension between Esther’s ‘lot’ and the English. Like many of his age and ilk, Arthur is a ‘staunch nationalist’, and when he’s down the pub he keeps his distance from the out-of-towners, drinking only in the Welsh-speaking public bar. Which is why Esther’s keeping quiet about her dalliance with Colin. She’s proud of her heritage, but her politics aren’t her father’s, nor is her Welsh pride at all exclusionary: ‘Somewhere inside her she knows that nationalism is part and parcel of provincialism.’ She loves the country of her birth, but this doesn’t stop her harbouring ‘dreams of escape’, of heading to Liverpool or London. When, on the night of the D-Day landings, Colin promises he has ‘something special’ to show her after the pub closes, she’s secretly hoping it’s an engagement ring.  

Not only is there no proposal, but – having shown Esther the soon-to-be-up-and-running POW camp, and making fun of her and the other villagers’ naivety – Colin brutally forces himself on the inexperienced teenager. Esther both does and doesn’t understand what’s happened, a dichotomy that Davies explores in terms of the restraints and misperceptions of language. It isn’t so much that she’s ashamed to speak of it to others – though that plays its part – she ‘doesn’t even know the Welsh for rape, wonders fleetingly if there is a word’. And while she does know the English term, it presents its own problem of comprehension. ‘Rape, as she understands it, is a particular form of murder, when a man kills a woman. It’s connected to sex, but the main thing is the murder. No one – in the films she’s seen, the books she’s read, the whispered stories she’s heard at school – no one survives rape.’ Not only has Esther survived – she’s pregnant to boot. 

This dissonance between assumption and experience is further heightened after the arrival of the POWs. Esther knows that she ‘ought to hate them […] 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.’ Colin, meanwhile, has given her all the reason she needs to hate him, so much so that whatever it is that she feels about the Germans ‘seems pale’ by comparison. Neither is she alone in her animosity (even if she has more reason than most to feel this way). ‘Don’t go forgetting who the real enemy are!’ an English soldier jeers at a local one night down the pub. ‘You are!’ the Welshman yells back. Colin and his comrades are looked on as an occupying force, the latest in a long line. As Arthur likes to remind everyone, Caernarvon Castle was ‘the first outpost of [England’s] empire’. The physical defilement of rape is clear from the get-go, but we come to understand that there’s an unforeseen psychological element involved, too: it forces Esther to identify more closely with the community around her. 

But Esther’s story is only one of the tangled threads of troubled nationalism here. An interesting mirror image is found in one of the POWs, a young soldier named Karsten. He was one of the very first German troops to surrender, when his gun emplacement on a beach in Normandy was overwhelmed. Now tainted as a coward, Karsten’s position among the other prisoners is precarious. That he also speaks English – learnt from hours spent watching English films before the war – renders him all the more suspect, possibly even dangerous. 

The Welsh Girl

Finally, there’s a third key figure: Captain Rotheram, the son of a German Jew, who fled Germany back in 1936 and is now an intelligence officer with the British Army. 

Rotheram rejects his Jewishness at every opportunity, because it’s not how he identifies himself. Not, of course, that this would have saved him from persecution by the Nazis, and nor does it prevent him from encountering antisemitism outside of Germany too.  

‘Even here […] even in this uniform,’ he thinks, ‘with dull rage’, when he’s refused service at the public bar in The Quarryman’s Arms; so accustomed to being met with antisemitism, he doesn’t realise that it’s precisely his English uniform that’s causing the problem.  

The way in which Davies entwines nationalism and misogyny feels especially progressive. ‘She’d been forced all her life by one circumstance or another – by poverty, by her mother’s death, by the needs of the flock. Being forced to do things is such a part of her daily life,’ thinks Esther stoically, so what makes the rape so different? Sexual violence is just part and parcel of a bigger picture of subjugation and objectification.  

But it’s not just the women who suffer. As we’ve become increasingly aware in recent years, patriarchal structures can make victims of us all. Proof of the subtlety of the nuances of the novel lie in the fact that Davies ably draws attention to this. ‘She’d never seen before how love of country is so wrapped up in the love of fathers,’ thinks Esther, when her and Karsten’s paths eventually cross, ‘but it suddenly seems so typical of the way men would ask for love. No, not even ask. Demand, as a duty.’ Set – and written – long before the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ entered the popular vernacular, The Welsh Girl illustrates its greatest stage is the theatre of war. 

There’s a moment, at the very end of the novel, when Rotheram realises that he feels neither German or British, and, in being unburdened of these identities, is finally able to throw off ‘the shackles of nationalism’, and ‘escape’ all the associated ‘debts and duties’. He knows that the Jews feel lost without a homeland of their own but, in this moment, it seems to him to be ‘such pure freedom to be without a country’. There’s a quiet radicalism in recognising that unbelonging can be something that grants liberty, and in Davies’s own life we also see a flicker of this possibility.  

Sheep farming in Snowdonia, 1951

To look Asian but to speak with a British accent completely threw people. I liked that; it felt as if I was just under the radar. You couldn’t place me through accent or class or ethnic things

Born to a Welsh father and a Malay-Chinese mother, he grew up in Coventry, where he remembers being one of only a handful of Asian children in his school. He went on to read physics at Cambridge, then took a second degree, in English, at Manchester. But it was when he subsequently moved to America – to do an MA in creative writing at Boston University – that he was able to free himself of certain presumptions. ‘To look Asian but to speak with a British accent completely threw people,’ he told the Guardian in 2007. ‘I liked that; it felt as if I was just under the radar. You couldn’t place me through accent or class or ethnic things.’ Interviewing him a decade later, the journalist Alex Clark asked Davies if – having now lived in the US for just short of a quarter of a century – he felt that he had become an American writer. ‘There’s not an identity that I can lay claim to that I don’t also feel ambiguous or ambivalent about, whether that’s Chineseness, or Welshness, or Britishness,’ he replied candidly. ‘Do I have some hesitation to claim Americanness? Yes. But I feel the same hesitancy to claim any of those identities.’ The Welsh Girl, he went on to explain, was born out of this uncertainty: he wrote it ‘to explore that, to find out what Welshness meant to me’. 

Ultimately, The Welsh Girl leaves us with a portrait of a potent, yet unobtrusive and deeply intimate, notion of national identity. It offers an alternative to both what is displayed by Arthur – something marred in ‘selfishness, and […] a kind of licensed misanthropy’ – and the showboating, jackbooted violence of fascism. There’s a Welsh term, cynefin, which refers to an intense sense of belonging to a certain place that’s passed from mothers to daughters. It’s what keeps sheep on their own special patch of land – and it’s passed down from lamb to ewe. And it’s the sheep, Esther thinks, that keep the people on the same land; ‘so perhaps they all have it,’ she reasons, animals and humans alike. It’s certainly something akin to this that Esther feels for Snowdonia, and that Karsten feels for the mountains of Northern Germany, where he was raised; but their attitudes towards a politicised notion of a fatherland are much more ambivalent. 

Esther knows that, should the truth ever come out (and regardless of the circumstances of the conception), there are those in the village who would label her a ‘traitor’ for carrying an Englishman’s child. But towards the end of the novel, ‘it comes to her now that cynefin is the essential nationalism, not her father’s windy brand, but this secret bond between mothers and daughters’. And, without wanting to indulge in spoilers, it’s this realisation that ultimately allows both her and her daughter-to-be to live freely on their own terms.  

Lucy Scholes is a critic based in London and Senior Editor at McNally Editions 

Peter Ho Davies