There was an interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian in which Giles Foden discussed the process resulting in Anne Enright’s win. Of The Gathering Would the subject matter deter readers? asked one judge. Was that a literary question? asked another. Indeed it’s not a literary question, but it’s certainly one I’ve asked myself and answered in the affirmative. So, unless my book group decides to read it, I won’t be.
I had no hestitations, at all, regarding Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl, a book with a cover designed to attract, a price tag of just £3.75 for a signed first edition (Check out greenmetropolis – I was there at just the right time!) and screeds of online recommendations – now including mine. I would have had this win the Booker. Here’s why:
1) That cover. That’s twice I’ve mentioned it now. But it is stunning. Take a look.
2) Subject matter. I lived in Germany for many years so anything with Germanic themes is of interest. Ho Davies gives me German prisoners-of-war in Wales. Most intriguing and enlightening. In particular, the guilt of surrendering to the enemy and the tensions that this engendered among the captured.
3) Esther, the Welsh heroine, is a curious character. A bit of a cold fish at times (not sure I could have demonstrated such sang-froid in her situation). Nevertheless she is an entirely sympathetic character and I was rooting for her and Karsten all the way. Bonus points to Ho Davies’ for not giving me the romantic ending I was hoping for.
4) The book contains a thought-provoking examination of race, nationality, belonging and the complications we, humans, insist on creating. So we have the Jew who doesn’t recognised his Jewishness sent to assess the sanity of Rudolph Hess. The English cad who takes unspeakable liberties with Esther. The German enemy soldier, Karsten, surprisingly gentle, who is perhaps the most sympathetic of them all. All caught in a conspiracy of events, a war fought for freedom and yet, following the events of this novel, only one will remain free to wander where he will.
5) I’ve a particular penchant for allegory and there is layer upon layer here. Even if it’s laid on with a trowel at times. Did Colin need to be English? No sense getting touchy about it ….. it suits the novel and the allegory that he is (and the author isn’t Welsh so there’s no hidden agenda). Also Ho Davies’ also uses scenes of rural life and shepherding not only to underpin his theme of belonging, but to show Esther the resolution to her dilemma. And, although it’s pat, I like the double meaning in the novel’s title.
6) While the themes are certainly heavy, reading the novel is not. The Welsh Girl has a traditional narrative, is plot-driven (almost) and very readable. Once started, I was unable to stop. I read it during one very pleasurable day. Granted that may not be a indicator of literary worth, but it’s sufficient for this panel of one to award Peter Ho Davies Lizzy’s Alternative Booker 2007.