The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
Introduced by Oliver Balch
Peter Ho Davies’ 2007 novel ‘The Welsh Girl’ arrived in my possession without fanfare. I found it in a pile, which was next to two other piles, which collectively filled a small carry-on suitcase that we’d packed in preparation for a lengthy trip. All the books had been purchased in one or other of Hay’s secondhand book emporia, home to everything any sensible traveller needs.
Though the pages were yellowed, the book’s smooth spine suggested it hadn’t been previously read. Or that it had belonged to someone who read it with utmost care, wary of leaving their mark on the binding. Read like my mother reads, a woman known for always keeping her books in protective brown paper bags, guarded furtively, as though something very precious lay inside, or something very horrid.
The Welsh Girl’s spine remains unblemished. Not because it’s still unread. Not because I stored it away, hermetically sealed, in a bag. But because I read it so quickly, in almost a single sitting. And because, from the first line of chapter One, I recognised it was a book to be read softly, tenderly, in time with Peter Ho Davies’ delicate, precise prose. “It’s a close June night in the Welsh hills, taut with the threat of thunder, and the radios of the village cough with static…” I love that word ‘taut’. Athletes are said to have taut bodies. Davies is an athletic writer.
As the title infers, the book is about Wales, which is always an intriguing subject, and never more so than when read abroad, by a pool, in the sun. A million miles away, in other words. Which actually, now I think about it, is a good place to read this particular book. It’s set in wartime. The girl in question, her mother dead, her adult life just starting, feels trapped by village life. The pub where she works, her laconic father, the cows that need milking every morning: all are slowly suffocating her. A visiting squady, she hopes, will offer her a route out. He doesn’t. In fact, the only time she leaves the nameless village – the only time it seems she’s ever left – was to terminate the fruits of that luckless endeavour in a back-street clinic in Liverpool.
Ultimately, it’s a book about freedom and escape and belonging. She, the Welsh Girl, belongs in her unnamed Welsh village, with her father and his sheep and the unlovable evacuee and her alleged sweetheart who never came back from the war but whose name is ever-present, carved in stone on the village’s war memorial.
Cynefin. It’s a word Peter Ho Davies introduces early and one on which much of the book hangs. Apparently, it’s the Welsh word for a flock of sheep’s “sense of place, of territory”. Without Cynefin, farming on the open hillside would be impossible. The sheep would just wander off. “He [the protagonist’s father] speaks of Cynefin with a kind of reverence, a kind of pride,” Peter Ho Davies writes. “Not least, as he’s told her several times, because the English don’t have a word for it. As if it’s an essentially Welsh quality.”
A worthwhile read, for any sensible traveller.