Friday, September 21, 2007

Excerpt of the Day (Books - The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies)

It's D-day in a small Welsh town soon to be the sight of a POW camp.
The broadcast ends and the noise builds again in the pub. It's not quite a cheer - the speech has been sternly cautious - but there's a sense of excitement kept just in check and a kind of relief, as if a long-held breath can finally be released. All spring the whispered talk has been about an invasion, and now it's here, D-day, the beginning of the end. The suspected secret the whole country has silently shared for months can be talked about openly at last. Everyone is smiling at the soldiers and calling congratulations, even the locals clustered behind the public bar. Constable Parry, the blowhard, goes so far as to mention the huge floating harbors glimpsed off the coast to the south ("Now we know what they was for"), raising a glass, clinking it sloppily with one of the sappers, who winks back ("No pulling the wool over your eyes, ossifer"). And the constable, egged on, launches into the rumor about Hess being held in Wales. Esther steps up on the crate once more and turns the radio dial through the catarrhal interference until it picks up faint dance music, Joe Loss and His Orpheans, from the Savoy in London. She hears something like applause and, looking round, sees with delight that it's literally a clapping of backs.

There's a rush for the bar again. People want to buy the men drinks. They're only sappers - road menders and ditch diggers, according to her father - but they're in uniform, and who knows when they could be going "over there." Suddenly, and without doing a thing, they're heroes, indistinguishable in their uniforms from all the other fighting men. And they believe it, too. Esther can see it in Colin's face, the glow of it. She stares at him and it's as if she's seeing him for the first time; he's so glossily handsome, like the lobby card of a film star.

Davies does not stint on description. He lets the reader know who the players really are, what the place looks and sounds like. I love that in the first of the two paragraphs he does not only say that there was excitement, he evokes it with a tumble of information: the bar's noise level, D-day, the locals, Rudolph Hess, a dance orchestra, and the sound of backs slapped in congratulation. He doesn't only describe how many people are in the pub all talking at once - his sentences echo the press - Constable Parry, the harbors, the glasses clinking, the beer sloshing, two bits of dialogue in parentheses - the second where you can really hear the joshing tone of pub talk when spirits are high - all packed in one sentence like the pub's drinkers.

I'm almost half way through the novel and I admire how Davies takes the time to place you somewhere specific and to let you know enough about who is there so that you can feel the meeting of character and environment - not just move from plot point to plot point. The point of view alternates between the denizens of this Welsh village and the German soldiers who end up in the POW camp after D-day. I don't want to tell you much more so as not to ruin the story.

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