Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Pleasant Enough Yarns

The Booker longlist has been announced. Ladies and gentlemen, start stifling your yawns.

I won't be reading any of the listed titled for the obvious reason that most of them will turn out to be unmitigated crap. I say that with some confidence given that I read most of the 2005 longlist and fair sample of the 2006 longlist. I have however already trudged through the Peter Ho Davies novel, which I reviewed for the SMH in March. The review doesn't seem to be online anymore, so here it is:
The Welsh Girl

In 2003, Peter Ho Davies was named in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list, a kind of bookie’s (or possibly Booker’s) form guide to literary colts and fillies. Granta’s list has proven remarkably prescient over the years, but with Davies the editors took their soothsaying to a new level, selecting a writer who was certifiably young and British but who wasn’t actually a published novelist. Four years on and Davies has finally delivered his debut novel; the question is, has he delivered on the hype?

The Welsh Girl begins with intimations of intrigue. It is September 1944 and Rotheram, an escaped German Jew seconded to the British Political Intelligence Division, is sent to Wales to assess the sanity of former Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess, and thus his suitability for trial at war’s end. Rotheram expects to have a role in any postwar legal proceedings, but the Hess assignment turns out to be a ruse to get Rotheram out of the way; the same prejudice that caused him to flee Germany will now prevent him from participating in bringing the Nazi leadership to justice. Instead, Rotheram is to act as liaison to the camps that have been established in Wales to house POWs captured in the European campaign. It is a second exile, a relegation to the periphery.

It is also something of a short circuit of reader expectations. Rotheram, Hess and the spectre of Nuremberg disappear, and The Welsh Girl evolves into a knotty rural drama, packed with moral dilemmas, wuthering weather and the expected array of colourful types down the pub. In alternating chapters we are introduced to Esther, the intelligent but sheltered daughter of a Welsh nationalist grazier, and Karsten, a handsome German NCO who, having surrendered to the British at Normany, ends up in a POW camp near Esther’s village.

Inevitably, Davies draws Karsten and Esther together for one of those unlikely collaborations that mutual longing – although not necessarily for one another – sometimes conjures. In fact, despite the incongruity of their union, the German soldier and the Welsh farm girl share a common status. Karsten may be literally inside but he is a natural outsider, while Esther is so far outside her native community she is practically neck-deep in the Irish Sea. The reader recalls Rotheram: isn’t he also, in many ways, an outsider? And isn’t the village riven with various permutations of the outsider/insider dichotomy? And isn’t Wales itself an outsider nation? And isn’t – well, you get the idea.

The Welsh Girl is full of this kind of thematic interplay, but Davies’ schematic, join-the-dots approach reveals a lack of faith in his potential readership. He might have left us some work to do but he seems determined to ensure that we don’t miss a trick. Reading The Welsh Girl quickly becomes a largely passive experience: open wide for the Big Theme!

Subtract the slightly hectoring authorial presence and The Welsh Girl is a pleasant enough yarn enlivened by moments of understated perception. Davies made his name with short stories and, despite its page count, The Welsh Girl at times has the intimate feel of a miniature. Small, significant things – the communal life of sheep; the shock of a missed period; the face of a stranger behind barbed wire - are evoked with care and grace. If only Davies had resisted the urge to stitch these elements together with neon thread he might have produced something subtle and telling.
In other words, The Welsh Girl is a Booker novel through and through, its accessible characters and big themes delivered in solid prose - the full "literary novel" experience. Toby Litt was allowed to be considerably harsher than I dared be on this asinine genre in his review of Justin Cartwright's The Song Before It Is Sung (which, oddly enough, I also reviewed for the SMH):

Here is the conventional form of a contemporary literary novel. There is a prologue, occasionally in italics, in which it is suggested that there is some sort of worthwhile mystery - a lost canister of film footage, a dubious inheritance-with-strings. This is meant to get the pulse racing, in a minor way; nothing too extreme. After this, the novel splits. Two stories are followed, often in alternating chapters. There is a contemporary character who, for one reason or another, is inexorably drawn into examining the reasonably distant past. And then there are the characters of that past, going about their fairly historically accurate business (because research must be seen to have been done).

Between the two stories there are, needless to say, poignant parallels and clarifying contrasts. Sooner or later, probably sooner, the contemporary character becomes aware of the worthwhile mystery, and sets out to solve it. And the fairly historically accurate historical characters, with all their past-is-another-country pungency and profundity, bumble about creating and revealing the worthwhile mystery. By the end, the contemporary character will have semi-solved the mystery - while at the same time suffering some emotional damage and achieving a moderate redemption.

Just as it is inevitable that Throngar the Brave’s plucky little band of misfits will defeat Zograx’s hordes to regain the Chalice of Power, or that Nurse Modest will overcome both rivals and misunderstandings to find herself in the tender arms of Doctor Yearn, so it is inevitable that the hero or heroine of literary fiction will gain knowledge, suffer damage and be moderately redeemed.


TimT said...

Just as it is inevitable that Throngar the Brave’s plucky little band of misfits will defeat Zograx’s hordes to regain the Chalice of Power...

Actually, Zograx's hordes gassed Throngar the Brave and his plucky little band, with the exception of Snufflegump, who had informed them of their whereabouts, and subsequently became a mid-level unctionary in Zograx's billion year Reign of Terror, such as the gentle land of Dillypong had never encountered before. This was followed by the dreadful time known as the Aeon of Blood...

This clear misrepresentation of facts is just another example of bias in the Fairfax media, I'm afraid. ;-)

TimT said...

Oops! That quote isn't from the Fairfax media at all.

Zograx will punish me for this: he gives no second chances. I am trembling as I type... :(

TimT said...

Aaaaand I'm going to steal my comment here and use it for a more extended post on my blog.