Well, Peter Ho Davies The Welsh Girl started out promising, as a sort of grown up Summer of My German Soldier. But it took almost nine-tenths of the book for the three plots to converge. One of which, by the way, I thought Ho Davies had totally forgotten about until the end. When I am as disappointed in a book as I was with the ending of this one, I inevitable wonder if I’ve missed the point. I have a bad habit of projecting onto a book what I want it to be, and then hating it when it doesn’t turn out the way I wanted to. In retrospect, though, I think this novel has a serious structural problem: it ends just when it gets interesting.
The story begins with Plot 1: a German Jewish refugee turned interrogator for the British is sent on a fool’s errand to question Rudolph Hess and find out if the guy has amnesia or if he’s faking and, more importantly, if he’s competent to stand trial for his crimes. To this day, we still don’t know. I suspect he was a faker, a really clever faker. This plot line forms the prologue, and we don’t hear anything from Rotherham until near the end of the book. So there goes the suspense generated by that plot.
Plot 2 is the story of Esther Evans, a young Welsh woman who gets more involved than she’d like with a visiting English soldier. The rest of her plot covers her life on her family’s farm with her father and an evacuee from Liverpool. When the POW camp is built near their town, she only gets close to it because the evacuee she’s taking care off can’t seem to stay away. A German POW gets infatuated with her (which is what interested me in the book in the first place), and she spends some time thinking about the implications of letting herself help a POW before she decides that she likes him, too. Meanwhile, she discovers that she’s pregnant from her encounter with her English soldier.
Plot 3 is the story of the German POW, Karsten. We meet him in Normandy on June 6, shortly before he surrenders in the face of a flamethrower. Most of his story concerns his guilt over surrendering. The captured men who come later blame him as a scapegoat for their defeats. “If he had held out a little longer, the war would be going better for the Germans” sort of thing. He escapes to spend time with Esther and to be free for a bit, before surrendering to the young evacuee to keep Esther from getting into trouble.
Once Karsten goes back to the camp, I felt like I was entering a waiting game like the characters were, waiting for the war to end so that Esther and Karsten to be together. I don’t want to totally give away the ending, so I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say, I was very disappointed in Karsten. When Rotherham popped back into the story, it just seemed like he was there to tie up loose ends. He changed from a character to a placeholder that exists only to gather information for the reader, like a detective character’s sidekick. This could have been a really interesting novel but I think it’s literary pretensions messed up the story. Blunt, but accurate in my opinion. You see what happens when you botch an ending?