>The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies is a beautiful book, intricate in its way, and deftly rendered character study. Set in Wales during World War II, the story is told from the points of view of Esther, the teenaged daughter of a Welsh farmer, and Karsten, a young German prisoner of war held in a PoW camp in the girl’s village. Both young people are trapped, or feel trapped, and both experience the relief and the shame of surrender, although for Esther, eventually, staying home is the ultimate freedom. An element of both entrapment and freedom is present in the concept of cynefin.
“She’d heard the word before, of course, but the importance of the concept had escaped her as a child. Now Arthur spelled it out. How it would be impossible to farm on the open mountain if the flock didn’t know its place. The sheep would scatter to the winds otherwise. It was why farms hereabouts were only ever sold along with their flocks. No one would buy a patch of land alone. What use would it be? You could try to put new livestock on it, but they’d be gone in a season.”
The sheep know their place, their territory, and so do the people.
Although both Esther and Karsten are a complex characters, and the story that eventually brings them together is well-made, and Davies’s prose is beautiful (Peter was a teacher of mine), I think there will be many readers who are more interested in the time and place of this story than I was. Some of Esther’s situation seemed a bit too familiar to me and while that will appeal to many, I wanted the story to take a different turn.
For another view, and for a discussion of the third point of view that the novel inhabits, see this review by Jim Ruland.