In “The Fortunes,” Peter Ho Davies wrote so convincingly and with such insight about the plight of Chinese-American immigrants that, when I met him recently at a reading, I was surprised to hear his lovely British accent.
He said he’s been accused of putting on his accent, which didn’t surprise me. We tend to see an Asian face and expect, well, something else.
I was even more surprised to hear him say he is Welsh. But I shouldn’t have been. His first novel, “The Welsh Girl” was equally detailed and insightful, though it’s set during World War II, long before Davies was born. He said it was based on his father’s reminiscences of the war.
Both novels artfully address the theme of how people pigeonhole others based on looks or accents or ignorance, and how we define ourselves.
“The Welsh Girl” begins when a British military investigator is sent to Wales to interview Rudolph Hess, who had—bizarrely—flown to England near the start of World War II and was captured. Ah, I thought, a political thriller with a love story. But it wasn’t that at all.
Then we meet Esther, the teenage daughter of a Welsh sheep farmer. Though she’s too young to do so, she also works at the local pub where she flirts with the British soldiers as they prepare to leave for war. One rapes her.
The third player in this intricate work is a German prisoner of war being kept in a POW camp just outside of town.
The novel never goes in a straight line, which is a thrill for readers who may have read too many WWII love stories. This one goes its own satisfying way.
Each character mulls—or broods over—the way they see themselves vs. the way others see them. The investigator—perhaps interrogator is a better word—is British and Jewish, though in name only; Hess uses this Jewish heritage to put him off his game. Esther is a bridge between the Welsh culture (which includes its own baffling language) and the rest of Great Britain. The Welsh part of her hates the way Britain has treated her homeland, but the British part of her demands patriotism. The German POW is both the enemy and, eventually, a lover.
Though the Hess subplot seems, at times, out of place, the three characters become part of each other’s lives in natural and surprising ways. And the village in which this surprising novel is set is just as much a player: Its ancient past, thrilling present and uncertain future are reflected in its many characters. These little pockets of the world were changed forever by international events and their stories are too seldom told.
Davies keeps these and many other plates spinning with prose that both surprises and sings as it demands your attention.