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All's fair

In love and war, The Welsh Girl's characters wrestle with identity, morality, and compromise

(GÉRARD DUBOIS)

The Welsh Girl
By Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin, 338 pp., $24

As the author of two critically acclaimed story collections -- "Equal Love" and "The Ugliest House in the World" -- Peter Ho Davies has been heralded in the past decade for his elegant sense of language and his emotional range, traits no doubt honed from his own bicultural heritage. Born in 1966 to a Welsh father and a Malaysian mother, Davies spent most of his life in England and Wales; in the acknowledg ments to his first novel, he thanks his father for "his vivid memories of Wales in wartime." This debt is in evidence all over "The Welsh Girl," which resonates with an authenticity that had to be earned. Set mostly in a remote village in the mountains of northern Wales during the months surrounding D-day , the novel is a painstakingly precise portrait of cultures colliding: the defiantly independent Welsh of the village, the German prisoners who land there in a POW camp, the British forces whose presence can be as rough and entitled as it is welcome. But Davies also delivers the daily trials and beauties of a sheep-farming world both remote and antiquated. If it weren't for the smells and sounds and little tragedies of Cilgwyn, the "smallholding" where Esther Evans lives with her father, Arthur, "The Welsh Girl" would be a story of war and moral consequence that could take place anywhere. The specifics of Esther's world -- her 17-year-old dreams of escape, the life-and-death cycles of lambing she shares with her father -- are what grant the novel a moody authority reminiscent of another age.

"The Welsh Girl" opens with a scene meant to evoke all the grim complexities of the war: British interrogators are showing Leni Riefenstahl's infamous film, "Triumph of the Will ," to their prisoner, Rudolf Hess, trying to break his claim of amnesia about his Nazi war crimes. One of the interrogators is a man named Rotheram, a German Jew who fled Hitler as a boy. Afraid of his Jewishness coming to light before the British, ashamed by a flight he perceives as failure, he is a study in the internalized iniquities of the Third Reich. Rotheram will disappear for most of the novel, but he serves as a narrative overseer -- his private moral dilemma and its eventual resolution define and color the themes of "The Welsh Girl." But its real story belongs to Esther, who works nights as a barmaid at the village's local pub, and to a young German soldier named Karsten who's been brought to the POW camp after his surrender.

An 18-year-old who learned English serving skiers from across Europe at his mother's pension, Karsten is an infantryman in a bunker on D-day ; when he stumbles into the sun with his hands up, he remembers the appropriate phrase to say to his Allied captors: "How do you do?" This touch of innocence amid the horrors of combat exemplifies Karsten, who, once incarcerated, uses his language skills and his sense of courtesy to communicate among prisoners and guards. He plays football with the other prisoners, nurses his private shame about surrender, writes his horrid mother (who writes back that she wishes he'd died a hero instead). When the local boys linger along the fence to torment the prisoners, Karsten endures their teasing and treats them with kindness. And when Esther, watching one night from the rise, calls for the boys to stop, Karsten bridges more than one obstacle when he calls back in English to thank her.

Davies has chosen to humanize and complicate his characters by casting almost every one of them against type: There's Colin, a British sapper building the POW camp, who's as much of a blackguard to Esther as he is savior in his own mind. There are the English interlopers at the pub who carry on with nationalist jokes and laments but who all have their own secrets to bear. Set in sharp relief to Rotheram's self-doubt is Karsten's half-noble idealism; he's a German gunner who longs for a world where the borders are only geographical. As for Esther herself, she can't help being a bit of a Tess of the d'Urbervilles; certainly her life and her fears capture the essential tone of Hardy's tragic sense of destiny. But Esther is no failed romantic victim. Prey to Colin's imperialism in every sense of the word, Esther takes her licks and bears her hatred like a sword; her refusal to buckle under or to act with propriety makes her a far more compelling character than she might otherwise have been.

The ambitious nature of "The Welsh Girl" also turns out to be its weakness. In working to underscore the grander themes of nationalism's crimes, the politics of language, and the moral incoherence of war, Davies sometimes strains toward the didactic: We don't need reminding time after time that nationalism can be "a kind of licensed misanthropy," or that language is both a tool and spoil of the victor. Instead there are far more lessons in the gentle sway and memory of the Welsh hills, where the sheep have been roaming and finding their way home for generations. This territoriality, this sense of place, is called cynefin in Welsh, passed down from the remaining females until the flock uses its collective memory as a compass. Watching the flock sleeping, "ghostly forms dotting the dark grass," Esther knows she has learned more from them than from any glory-struck soldier in a pub. That is the time-tested metaphor of "The Welsh Girl," a gift of knowledge as enduring and as marked by peace as the night itself.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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