Sunday, February 25, 2007

"The Welsh Girl"

Peter Ho Davies is the author of two award-winning short story collections -- The Ugliest House in the World (1997) and Equal Love (2000) -- and a new novel, The Welsh Girl.

Peter applied the "page 69 test" to The Welsh Girl and reported the following:
The idea that a single page might represent a whole book is a once alarming and challenging to me. Alarming because it seems so reductive to ask one page to stand for the whole, but challenging, too, because of course I'd like to hope that every page counts towards that whole. McLuhan's idea also reminds me of a question about nationalism central to The Welsh Girl - to what extent can or should we as individuals (like single pages) be representatives of a nation or people (or a novel)?

My page 69 falls at the very end of Chapter 3, which introduces the third and last of the book's main characters, Karsten Simmering, a young German POW just captured during the D-Day landings, and stunned both by the battle he's been through but also by the sheer scale of the invasion.

"The enemy are so many, Karsten thinks, through the night and now the morning, still marching out of the sweeping surf. The prisoners drowse and wake and drowse and wake and no matter when they awake, no matter how many hours have passed, there is the enemy column moving up the beach. And offshore the smoke of countless ships; over head, hour after hour, the drone of planes. It's astonishing, Karsten thinks, a staggering sight, the kind of manpower that built the pyramids or the Great Wall, the wonders of the world."

The other two major figures in the book are Esther Evans, the Welsh girl of the title, and Rotheram, a German Jewish refugee working for British intelligence. It's sometime beyond this page that these three meet, but this point in the book, with all the main figures introduced, feels as if it marks the "end of the beginning" of the book (to borrow Churchill's famous phrase), even as each of the characters themselves are responding to the beginning of the end of the war, itself. And while page 69 only directly addresses one character Karsten like the other two in their different ways is starting to glimpse the turning tide of history here, and to wonder what his place in the new world will be, where - and indeed if - he'll belong.

He watches yet another landing craft disgorge its men, and follows them up the beach, past the stockade, towards the dunes and he feels an odd pull, a tug towards the horizon. All those men flowing in one direction. He yearns to look over the dunes, as if he has no idea, no recollection of what's there. It comes to him that he's behind enemy lines, but the shifting geography seems unreal to him, as if the earth has turned under his very feet. This was German territory, and now British but he can't see how it's changed. He pictures the maps he's seen, imagines the fields beyond the dunes tinged the faint dawning pink of empire. And he wishes suddenly he could follow that column of men, feels powerfully as if he's falling behind, he who could march faster and further than anyone.
Read, or listen to, an excerpt from The Welsh Girl.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Series.