In Review: Madelaine Miller, Peter Ho Davies and Rebecca West
I admit defeat. No amount of wishful thinking is going to get me through the backlog of books I’ve read but haven’t yet reviewed (10 at the last count).
It’s time for a dose of reality. No amount of bashing my head against the wall is going to get me to a point where I have the time to write the usual full reviews on all those books. Which means that mini reviews are going to the order of the day.
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
The Welsh Girl, Peter Ho Davies’s first novel ,is set in 1944 in a remote village in Snowdonia, North Wales. Until now this is a community untouched by the war. All that changes in the wake of D-Day when a site near the village is selected as the base of a new German POW camp.
First to arrive are the English sappers charged with constructing the camp. Then come the prisoners. The strangers are a huge source of curiosity among the locals including seventeen-year-old Esther, daughter of a fiercely Welsh nationalist sheep farmer.
She works as a barmaid in the local pub while yearning for a taste of more excitement. For a time this is offered by one of the soldiers but the relationship goes horribly wrong. She is more suited to one of the prisoners, a German naval infantryman who is haunted because he’d ordered his men to surrender. The pair are drawn into a romance that calls into question issues of loyalty and belonging.
The Welsh Girl deals extensively with national identity, particularly that of the Welsh. The village’s strong sense of identity comes through in their pride in the Welsh language and their culture. Nationalism is, Ho Davies, says ” what holds the place together, like a cracked and glued china teapot.”
It’s a perfectly good story with some subtly drawn characters. It treads similar ground to Owen Sheers’ Resistance in its themes of love of land and country, love and hate of nations, love and suspicion among people, fear and war and common decency. But Ho Davies’s version is more convincing.
Circe by Madeline Miller
I was not enthused to hear this had been chosen by my fellow members at the book club. Partly because I feared my minuscule knowledge of Greek myths would be a barrier to understanding the narrative. But more significantly, I struggle to engage with magical realism and books whose characters are not human or real.
But within one chapter all my fears were set aside. I was hooked on this tale of Circe, unloved and under-valued daughter of the sun god Helios, who finds through witchcraft the power to combat her unhappy childhood. Miller gives her a voice, showing her as a multi-faceted, complex person who experiences both joy and loneliness in a life independent of her famous father.
This is a book that has everything: jealousy and revenge; struggles of conscience; love and betrayal within a tale of adventure and romance. The descriptions – such as that of of Helios’ glittering ‘court’ – are spectacularly sumptuous. And if you want breathtaking adventure, you just need to read the scene where sailors do battle with one of Circe’s creations, the hideous sea monster Scylla.
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
I’m in awe of the fact The Return of the Soldier was written when Rebecca West was just 24 years old. The depth of understanding of human nature and relationships it displays suggests an author with many more years of experience of life.
The eponymous soldier is 36-year-old Chris Baldry who has returned from the first world war physically intact but shell-shocked. He’s forgotten the past 15 years of his life. He’s forgotten that he’s married to Kitty and they once had a son who died. All he remembers is a time when he was 21 and deeply in love with a woman called Margaret.
There are three women in his life who all want to see him restored to health. His wife Kitty, an attractive, stylish woman but with a detached, reserved nature; Margaret, his lost love who is no longer the beautiful girl he remembers but a worn out frump. And Jenny, his devoted cousin who is the book’s narrator,
The women have a choice – to accept him as he is now, happy though deluded or to try and shock him out of his amnesia. But if they succeed and ‘cure’ him, he will be fit enough to return to the front (and potentially to his death). It is Margaret, the quiet, resourceful woman, who reveals a hidden depth and greatest love.
Although the novel is set during World War 1, it isn’t about the war. In fact it’s not until very close to the end that there is any significant detail about conditions at the front for example. The focus is entirely on the emotional and psychological effect of battle and conflict.
But it also deals with issues of class. Both Kitty and Jenny are horribly dismissive of Margaret who they see “repulsively furred with neglect and poverty”). They find it difficult to conceive that Chris would reject the wealth and status of a life with them, in favour of poverty and plainness with Margaret. To her credit however Jenny does come to recognise that Margaret outshines them in putting Chris’s needs above her own.
This is aa short but intense piece of fiction that had me going in search of what else Rebecca West had written.