Not a Nasty

Thomas Jones

  • The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
    Sceptre, 344 pp, £12.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 340 93825 6

The Welsh girl’s name is Esther Evans. She is 17 years old, and lives with her father – her mother is dead – on a sheep farm in North Wales. In the evenings she works behind the lounge bar of the Quarryman’s Arms in the village a couple of miles from their smallholding. It’s 1944. English sappers from the Pioneer Corps are in the area, converting an abandoned holiday camp for a clandestine military purpose. The local rumour mill is hard at work, grinding out speculation as to what or who the new base is for: commandos, Free French, Poles, Americans, ‘alpine troops training in the mountains for the invasion of Norway’. On the evening of D-Day, Esther and Colin, a sapper she’s been ‘stepping out with’, sneak down to the camp after last orders.

Esther hasn’t told her father about Colin. Arthur Evans is a ‘staunch nationalist’: he’s only been to England once, to a rally in Hyde Park in 1937 to protest against the conviction of the three Plaid Cymru leaders who set fire to the RAF bombing school – or training camp, depending on your point of view, though Peter Ho Davies tacitly takes the nationalist line – at Penrhos. Arthur drinks on the other side of the pub from the English soldiers, in the Welsh-speaking public bar. His daughter doesn’t share his politics: she’s ‘proud of her Welshness’ but ‘impatient with all the talk of the past’, and ‘yearns to be British, tonight of all nights’. She dreams of leaving, of escaping to London or Liverpool, and lets herself wonder if the ‘something special’ Colin has promised her mightn’t be a marriage proposal. If it were, it wouldn’t be her first: Rhys Roberts, the son of Esther’s old English teacher, who used to help out on her father’s farm, had asked her to marry him in the spring. He took the bus to Caernarvon and joined up when she turned him down.

Colin’s secret isn’t a marriage proposal, of course. At the deserted camp at midnight, they climb down under the tarpaulin covering an empty swimming-pool. ‘“Pee,” he whispers. “Oh.” He grins. “Doubleyas!” It takes her a moment to decipher him. “POWs!” he repeats, like it’s a punchline, and slowly, queasily, she begins to smile. “That’s who it’s for! And your lot thinking they was part of the war effort.”’ Despite this flash of hostility, she kisses him. But he wants more than kisses. ‘I wish I had something to remember you by,’ he says, and starts fumbling with her clothes. She tries to stop him; he rapes her; she headbutts him; he runs away.

The next day, ‘the morning after the invasion’ of Occupied Europe, but also of Esther Evans, she considers letting her father know what happened:

This might be the last chance to tell him, she thinks. To tell him herself, not have him find out. But she can’t conceive of the words. She doesn’t even know the Welsh for rape, wonders fleetingly if there is a word. Even in English she can’t quite bring herself to call it rape, what Colin did to her, not now, not even to herself . . . 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.

But Esther has survived, though there is no doubt that she has been raped. The Welsh Girl repeatedly explores the vexed relationship between language and action, the differences between expectation and experience.

When the prisoners of war arrive at the camp, Esther goes down with the other curious villagers to take a look. She has been told that ‘the nasties are here’ by Jim, an evacuee from Liverpool who is staying on the farm. Standing on the hill above the camp, Esther catches sight of Colin preparing to leave: ‘Whatever she feels about the Germans, she realises, seems pale compared to what she feels about Colin.’ Whether someone is a friend or an enemy is a more complicated question than which side of the barbed-wire fence they are on. Esther knows in theory that the Germans are the enemy; but she has personal experience of the brutality of the English. The war, like the world beyond her small ‘corner of North Wales’, seems remote to Esther, almost abstract. Whereas in one sense – an all too real one – the sappers are the abusive forces of an occupying power. Wales, as Arthur is quick to remind people, is England’s oldest colony, Caernarvon Castle ‘the first outpost of their empire’. Among Colin’s offences is the forcing on Esther of a closer identification with Wales than she ordinarily feels, though Ho Davies sensibly doesn’t labour this point.

The Welsh Girl is also the story of a German boy, Karsten. Eighteen years old, recently promoted to corporal, he is manning a gun emplacement on a Normandy beach when the Allies invade. He and his men are among the first – possibly, the very first – Germans to surrender. The shame of it, the stigma of cowardice, is something he isn’t able to live down among the other prisoners in any of the POW camps he finds himself in, whether in Normandy, Dover or North Wales. Even his mother is ashamed (his father, who fought in the First World War, is dead). ‘I have let it be understood,’ she writes to him – ‘not so much a falsehood as an assumption I’ve not contradicted – that you are injured.’ She assures the neighbours in the village in the Harz mountains where she runs a pension that Karsten ‘must have fought’ until his ‘last round’. Part of the reason he surrenders is that he speaks English, which makes it that much easier for him to give himself up without a white flag. He learned the language, he says, from the cinema.

The similarities between Karsten and Esther are emphasised over their differences: each is the only child of a single parent; each speaks English as a second language, which gives them access to a wider world, one that they experience first and perhaps most vividly through the movies; each feels a powerful loyalty to the landscape of their childhood, but only a more tenuous link to the more abstract, political idea of nation or fatherland. The attachment to landscape is something they have in common with Esther’s father’s flock, which, like all sheep, have a sense of habitat, or cynefin, which is passed down from mother to daughter, from ewe to lamb, and prevents them straying too far from home. But again, Ho Davies is careful not to place too much weight on the analogy. It’s only a matter of time – and he paces the story well, doesn’t rush things – before Karsten and Esther fall in love across the lines.

Jim the evacuee is wrong about Karsten: he’s German, but he’s not a nasty. On the other hand, there is no escaping the fact that he is a soldier in Hitler’s army. The prisoners are shown films to help relieve the boredom of captivity, the ‘Sitzkrieg’, as one of Karsten’s comrades has taken to calling it. One night they see The Invisible Man. Afterwards, some of the soldiers talk excitedly of the possibility that ‘the Führer’s scientists had discovered how to make a man disappear . . . Mightn’t there be secret armies of invisible men waiting in special camps to be unleashed, hundreds, thousands of men made to disappear by the science of the fatherland?’ Even if they are ignorant of the Holocaust, and will at first refuse to believe the footage they are shown of the liberation of Belsen, they know enough to know that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Framing Esther’s and Karsten’s stories – or story, as it eventually becomes – is an account of the interrogation of Rudolf Hess by Captain Rotheram, a (fictional) intelligence officer in the British army. Rotheram’s father, a German Jew, was killed at Verdun. He and his mother left Germany in 1936. Rotheram – he added the last four letters of his name after coming to England – is insistent, perhaps too insistent, that he is not Jewish, as indeed according to his father’s family he is not. Hess asks him ‘what that says about the way you feel about Jews’. Hess may have a point, but it also doesn’t occur to him that what Rotheram is resisting may not be the identification itself so much as the Nazis’ urge to label him.

Rotheram’s story brushes up against Esther and Karsten’s more than once: first, he disguises himself as a captured German soldier at the internment camp in Dover where Karsten is held before being transferred to North Wales; and then he is sent to the camp in North Wales to investigate the escape of one of the prisoners (no prizes for guessing who). There is a fine moment when the barman at the Quarryman’s Arms refuses to serve him at the public bar. ‘Even here, Rotheram thought with dull rage, even in this uniform.’ But it is precisely because of the English uniform that the barman is refusing him.

Rotheram is perhaps one bilingual hybrid character too many: it’s true that his presence enlarges the scope of the novel, bringing Esther’s isolated world into tangential contact with Hitler’s inner circle, but the scenes between Hess and Rotheram are the worst in the book. There is, for one thing, a problem with the way Hess is represented: he’s too much the enigmatic sage, the wise old bird. And then the sections of the novel that feature him are too much like a movie to sit comfortably with the main plot, which is in part concerned with the ways in which life does not resemble the movies. (Two of the guards are called Redgrave and Mills, suggesting that Ho Davies, aware of the difficulty, is trying to make a joke of it.)

Perhaps the idea is to set up a contrast between the cinematic unreality of a member of the German high command being held and interrogated in a country house and the earthy reality of a POW camp for the rank and file on the outskirts of a small Welsh village. If so, it snags and tears on the hard, sharp fact that Hess is a historical figure. And besides, Ho Davies has already established a contrast between the ‘real’ Hess and the Hess you might find in the movies: the novel begins with an account of Rotheram watching Hess watching himself in Triumph of the Will, in an attempt to discern whether he is faking his amnesia.

The weaknesses in Rotheram’s story do not detract from Esther’s, however. Her hope that she can keep what Colin did to her a secret fades after a couple of months. Eventually she confides in one of the regulars at the pub, an actress on the BBC Light Programme, a worldly and sympathetic outsider. (Esther seems not to have any other female friends, as if the war has created a strange absence of young women as well as young men in the village.) But the obvious solution to her problem turns out not to be available, and she is compelled instead to devise an ingenious way to have a baby without ignominy.

During the last lambing season, Esther remembers, one of the Evanses’ ewes gave birth to a stillborn lamb half an hour before another sheep died giving birth to a healthy one. Arthur skinned the dead lamb and tied its fleece over the living orphan, so that the ewe would recognise and suckle it as her own. ‘Esther’s tired mind can barely make sense of the parallels. Has she deceived, or been deceived? Is she the lamb, the ewe, the shepherd? Perhaps all three. All she knows is that . . . the baby feels finally, firmly hers now, hers alone.’