Review: The Welsh Girl

The Welsh GirlPeter Ho Davies, The Welsh Girl

Set in North Wales just after D-Day, this novel weaves together the stories of three people who are all struggling with the ways in which the war has made them question their identity. Esther is the eponymous Welsh girl who works as a barmaid but dreams of life outside her tiny village. When an English soldier takes advantage of her, Esther has to face her future and determine what kind of woman she will become. Karsten is a young German soldier who has surrendered to the English and must now live with the shame of being a coward; as he sees the Allies reclaim more and more of Europe, he also questions his belief in German supremacy. Meanwhile, Rotheram is a German man with a Jewish father who fled Germany in the early days of the war. He now works as a translator for the British and interrogates German prisoners, but he is conflicted about where his loyalties truly lie.

Lately I’ve been really interested in books that are set during World War II, so I had high hopes for this novel. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations, which is largely the fault of the cover blurb. I thought the book would mostly focus on the relationship between Esther and Karsten and the obstacles they’d have to face being on opposite sides of a war. But while a relationship does grow between them, it doesn’t actually happen until well after the halfway point of the novel. Most of the book is just setting up the conflict, as Esther’s background, the Welsh attitude toward the war, and Karsten’s military career are described in plodding detail. I wouldn’t actually call the book romantic at all — which is not a problem, except that the blurb led me to believe otherwise! I do think that the novel raises some interesting thoughts relating to World War II and war in general, so it was probably worth reading for those insights. (There was also a line near the end of the book about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen that got me right in the gut.) But overall, although I wanted to like this book, it just didn’t do anything for me.

Review: The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories

The Wedding of ZeinTayeb Salih, The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories (trans. Denys Johnson-Davies)

This very short book contains two short stories, “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates,” as well as the novella “The Wedding of Zein.” All three works portray everyday life in a Sudanese village, but from varying perspectives. “The Doum Tree…” is about a sacred tree that is threatened when outsiders want to cut it down to make room for a new agricultural system. “A Handful of Dates” portrays a young boy’s disillusionment as he realizes that his grandfather isn’t as heroic as the boy once thought. And in “The Wedding of Zein,” the village laughingstock is about to be married to a beautiful and much-desired woman; the varied reactions of the townspeople to the news reveal subtle tensions within the village.

Before giving my thoughts on this book, I must admit that I know next to nothing about Sudan. I wasn’t even aware that its population spoke Arabic until I saw “translated from the Arabic” somewhere on my copy of the book! So I was very interested in reading these stories and broadening my horizons a little bit. Interestingly, my first impression after reading this book was that it could have been set in any number of places: the ┬ácountry’s major conflicts of the last several years, including the secession of South Sudan, are not mentioned at all. Yet I did get a sense of the country’s Islamic culture and traditions, as well as its incorporation of progressive ideas in the realms of medicine and education. I found my glimpse into this foreign (to me) culture extremely fascinating. But I really liked the book’s focus on universal themes like love, family relationships, and the intricacies of village life. All in all, I found this book very easy to read and would definitely consider reading more by Tayeb Salih.

Review: Hunting and Gathering

Hunting and GatheringAnna Gavalda, Hunting and Gathering (trans. Alison Anderson)

The original French title of this novel is Ensemble, C’est Tout, which is a much more fitting name for a book about a group of lost souls who eventually find happiness with each other. Camille is literally a starving artist, wasting away to skin and bones while working a completely unfulfilling job as an office cleaner in Paris. One day she falls ill and is rescued by Philibert, a sweet-natured but socially awkward aristocrat who is living in his family’s decaying ancestral home. Philibert also has a roommate named Franck, a talented chef whose filthy language is only matched by his even filthier lifestyle. Initially, the three of them living in one house seems like a recipe for disaster; but as they learn more about one another, they slowly build an unconventional family.

I think this is a perfect cold-weather book; it just begs to be read while snuggled up in a blanket and sipping something warm. At its core, it’s a fairly simple and predictable love story, with the hero and heroine hating each other at first, then slowly changing their minds. But Gavalda’s dreamy, transparent prose helps it to rise above a stereotypical chick-lit or romance novel. There’s something very thoughtful and smart about the book as a whole; I especially loved the descriptions of Camille’s art. The only thing that bugged me about the book is that sometimes the dialogue was hard to follow — there aren’t a lot of tags to indicate who’s saying what. There’s also a lot of jumping around between different characters’ perspectives, which can be distracting. Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to fans of love stories or French literature.